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Think of two people who once dominated the headlines, but have suddenly disappeared from sight. They’ve both been hidden away.

Osama bin Laden’s probably living in a cave somewhere in Pakistan, and Rand Paul’s living in a cave in Kentucky. And we won’t see or hear from either one of them again until after the mid-term elections.

The collapse of Rand Paul’s political career is one of the strangest tales of modern politics. No one since Icarus has experienced a more sudden rise and fall in fortune – for which he has no one to blame but himself.

Naturally, following the lead of his political mentor Sarah Palin, Paul blamed his misfortune on being trapped by the “liberal media” in a case of “gotcha journalism.” But Paul was no more ambushed by Rachel Maddow than Palin was by Katie Couric. “What magazines or newspapers do you read?” was no trick question. Neither was “Would you vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?”

Maddow wasn’t the first to question Paul’s extreme brand of libertarianism, which holds that – even though one may personally abhor any form of discrimination – government has no right to place any restrictions on the practices of private business, period. Paul raised the issue himself, long before he got into politics, in a 2002 letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, his hometown newspaper.

Dr. Paul, a practicing ophthalmologist, blasted the paper for endorsing the Fair Housing Act. “The Daily News ignores the distinction between private and public property,” he wrote. And left no doubt what he meant: “A free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin.” Private property owners, believes Dr. Paul, have every right to refuse to sell or rent to persons of color.

Later he applied the same (lack of) logic to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Public buildings could well be required to provide elevators so those in wheelchairs could reach upper floors, argued Paul, but not private building owners. Instead, he asked, “Should you not be allowed maybe to offer them an office on the first floor?” He did not explain how department store owners, for example, might arrange to display all items a handicapped person might want to buy on the first floor of their emporiums, in order to avoid having to install elevators.

Given such zany comments, it’s no wonder Maddow leapt at the chance to ask Rand Paul about the Civil Rights Act. Her “trick” question was the straightforward: “How about desegregating lunch counters?” His convoluted answer was: “Well, what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says, ‘Well, no, we don’t want to have guns in here’; the bar says, ‘We don’t want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion.”

Say what? Even most political novices would know the answer to that question is a simple, “yes.” Of course, segregated lunch counters are wrong. Yet it took Rand Paul three days of twisting himself in and out like a Coney Island pretzel before he finally admitted he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. Phew!

Out of the frying pan into the fire. The very next day, Paul’s anti-government, tea-party extremism got him in trouble again, when he called President Obama’s criticism of BP for failing to clean up the Gulf oil spill “un-American” – this at a time when most Americans believe the president hasn’t been tough enough.

Now, strangely enough, Democrats have a good chance to pick up a Senate seat in red-state Kentucky, of all places, with Attorney General Jack Conway – while Republicans are stuck with a candidate whose views they never questioned during the primary – but now can neither explain nor defend.

And therein lies the lesson to be learned from the case of Rand Paul: Know what a candidate stands for before you crown him your nominee, not after. Or else.

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