At the Prospect today, Paul Waldman manages to remind us of two important things to keep in mind in contemplating the Rand Paul presidential campaign: first, some of the crazy things he’s said in the not-too-distant past (example: ruminations on the North American Superhighway Conspiracy in 2008), and second, why that matters more in his case than in others. The crazy stuff will drib and drab into public view for the next few months, and some people will notice and others won’t. So it’s the second issue most interests me, because it explains why we should notice:

[M]ost politicians who get to where Paul is work their way up by climbing the political ladder: they run for city council in their town, then maybe mayor, then they become a state rep, then a state senator or congressman, and finally run for the Senate. That experience makes you a creature of the place where you come from and party that nurtured you. Along the way your views will come to reflect their concerns and their consensus about policy.

But that’s not the path Rand Paul followed. Whatever his talents, he’s a United States senator because he’s Ron Paul’s son. Over his time in Congress, Ron Paul developed a small but fervent national constituency, made up of some ordinary libertarians and a whole lot of outright wackos. That constituency was greatly expanded by his 2008 presidential campaign. Despite the fact that Paul had plenty of interesting and reasonable things to say, it’s also the case that if you were building a bunker to prepare for the coming world financial crash and ensuring societal breakdown (and possible zombie apocalypse), there was only one presidential candidate for you. When Rand Paul decided to run for Senate in 2010, having never run for anything before, the Ron Paul Army mobilized for him, showering him with money and volunteers. He also had the good fortune to be running in a year when Republicans everywhere were looking for outsider, tea party candidates, so he easily beat the choice of the Kentucky GOP establishment in the primary.

In other words, Senator Rand Paul is the product of a fringe movement that has embraced all sorts of nuttiness from the theocratic urges of the Constitution Party to Agenda 21 to the North American Superhighway, in addition to its better-known eccentric obsessions with crank monetary policy. That’s his resume. You have to examine it the same way you examine what other candidates did just before becoming national political celebrities. Otherwise you buy into the idea that he sprang fully developed from the brow of his father before running for president himself.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.