Sen. Rand Paul speaks during a virtual Senate Committee hearing on May 12, 2020. (photo by Win McNamee via AP Images)

Rand Paul, the strategic coward

Bruce Maples
Bruce Maples
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I’m fairly sure that all the readers of the Daily Take and of Forward Kentucky are what most people would call “political junkies”: persons with a strong interest in politics, either out of a sense of responsibility as a citizen, and wanting to be an informed voter — or just because you enjoy the Sturm und Drang of politics.

As such, you want to see and hear debates between candidates. You want to be there when one candidate makes a memorable gaffe. You want to see your candidate “beat” the other candidate with logical arguments and well-turned phrases. And when one candidate is a no-show, you are offended at this insult to the political process and to our democracy.

Guess what – no one else cares.

There was a time, perhaps, when a candidate failing to show for a televised debate would have been a front-page story, and would probably have cost that candidate votes at the polls.

Now, not so much. Unless it’s a debate for president or vice-president, most people have something else to do. They know whom they are going to vote for, and the safe answers and talking points that candidate use in debates are not going to be enough to change their mind.

Of course, if the candidates actually cared about having a healthy democracy, and if they had any respect for the voters and the citizens they are supposed to serve, they would show up anyway. But let’s be honest: most politicians care more about winning than about either of those things. (Which is why they are politicians and not actual public servants.)

Charles Booker called Rand Paul a coward for not showing up to their KET debate. It’s probably an accurate appellation – Paul was most likely scared of taking the stage in a debate with Booker.

But here’s the thing: strategically, it was the right thing to do.

If a candidate is comfortably ahead in the polls — which Paul is — then they have nothing to gain by debating. They are not going to win many more votes, and they don’t need to.

For such a candidate, the only thing that can happen at a debate is to lose votes – or help their opponent gain votes. They could commit some gaffe or misstatement so egregious that it actually does become front-page news.

If the race is close, on the other hand, both candidates really do have to show up for a debate, or possibly for more than one. If you are only up by a few points, you can’t give your opponent the chance to pick up those few points by showing up and then mocking you for backing out.

If I had been one of Rand Paul’s campaign consultants, I would have told him to skip the debate; he’s way ahead, he doesn’t need to give Booker any free air time to bash him, and he could make a bigger story by messing up.

I hate it; I hate that such considerations have to be part of our democratic process. But they are, and they will be for any race where one candidate is comfortably ahead.

So yes, call Rand Paul a coward. Add that to the long list of adjectives you can use to describe him, almost all of which are negative.

But if you’re going to be accurate, you need to call Rand Paul what he was in this case: a strategic coward.

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Bruce Maples has been involved in politics and activism since 2004, when he became active in the Kerry Kentucky movement. (Read the rest of his bio on the Bruce Maples Bio page in the bottom nav bar.)

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