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"Remember what Rahm Emanuel said," Paul warns the foreman. " 'Every good crisis deserves a big-government solution.' " (The actual quote from Obama's chief of staff was "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.") "We've had a couple accidents in the coal industry, and we just had a big accident in the oil industry," Paul says, referring to the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "And they'll use that as an excuse for more rules, more control."

Rules, control—just what Rand Paul abhors most, what chafes him about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and about environmentalists taking aim at Appalachia's coal industry for a practice known as mountaintop removal. The process involves blasting off the tops of mountains to get at the coal seams inside, then filling stream valleys with the resulting rubble and debris. Scientists and environmentalists say its effects are devastating, that it buries feeder streams, razes ecosystems, leaves toxic sludge pits and decapitated, denuded forests in its wake. "Mountaintop-removal coal mining," Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the chief prosecuting attorney for the eco-watchdog group Riverkeeper, recently wrote, "is the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation."

Paul believes mountaintop removal just needs a little rebranding. "I think they should name it something better," he says. "The top ends up flatter, but we're not talking about Mount Everest. We're talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here. And I've seen the reclaimed lands. One of them is 800 acres, with a sports complex on it, elk roaming, covered in grass." Most people, he continues, "would say the land is of enhanced value, because now you can build on it."

"Let's let you decide what to do with your land," he says. "Really, it's a private-property issue." This is a gentler, more academic variation on a line he used the evening before, during his speech at the Harlan Center: "If you don't live here, it's none of your business." It's the kind of catchphrase that may serve him well in Kentucky, where he has remained steadily ahead of Jack Conway in polls, even after the Rachel Maddow incident. (The small size of Kentucky's African-American population—just seven percent—may have softened his comments' impact back home.) Barring, or maybe not barring, any further philosophical tangents, Rand Paul seems poised to enter the United States Senate, where he'll bring the ideological zeal inherent in that mantra—"If you don't live here, it's none of your business"—to 99-to-1 votes, as well as 51-to-49 ones.

Yet that battle cry, presumably, is what Harlan County's coal operators shouted when they kept a brutal anti-populist grip on their fiefdoms.

"Is there a certain amount of accidents and unfortunate things that do happen, no matter what the regulations are?" Paul says at the Harlan Center, in response to a question about the Big Branch disaster. "The bottom line is I'm not an expert, so don't give me the power in Washington to be making rules. You live here, and you have to work in the mines. You'd try to make good rules to protect your people here. If you don't, I'm thinking that no one will apply for those jobs. I know that doesn't sound..." Here he stumbles, trying to parse his words properly but only presaging his campaign misstep. "I want to be compassionate," he concludes, "and I'm sorry for what happened, but I wonder: Was it just an accident?"

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