Rand Paul is out of the Republican presidential contest, and it’s a shame. But this is more a case of wasted potential than of a tragic defeat in a noble cause. Paul didn’t fade because his libertarian views were rejected outright, but rather because he didn’t really campaign on them.
Before I explain what I mean by that, a disclaimer: it’s easy to over-analyze Senator Paul’s “loss” in the primary. Running for president is a difficult thing, and most of the people who do it don’t succeed. It’s rare to find just the right mix of ideas and personality to match the mood of the times and catch on with voters, and the results sometimes seem arbitrary and capricious. Candidates who look great on paper disappear without a trace (sorry, Bobby Jindal), frontrunners suddenly come in second (sorry, Donald Trump), and establishment guys with coffers full of money fail to launch (sorry, Jeb Bush). There are so many reasons why a particular candidate won’t make it that you hardly need to search for an explanation.
But there is one factor most of the post-mortems on Paul are definitely missing. They are mostly asking whether his loss was a setback for the libertarian wing of the Right, presuming that this is what he represented in the campaign. Yet what increasingly struck me toward the end is the extent to which Paul did not campaign on the libertarian agenda, at least not in key respects.
Ben Domenech covers some of this in his overview of Paul’s departure, pointing out how moderation of his father’s anti-interventionist foreign policy, combined with other candidates moving closer to that stance, robbed his message of its distinctiveness. But this covers only foreign policy. Where I was really hoping Paul would have an impact was on other issues — the ones I agree with him on — particularly economics and government spending. Yet on those issues as well, he was paradoxically too close to the conservative mainstream.
For example, with Trump staking out the most extreme, anti-immigration position and vowing to deport all the Mexicans and make them pay for a wall — and with most of the other candidates scrambling closer to that position — we really could have used someone to take up the other side and argue the case for less restrictive immigration laws. That might have made this a real debate within the Republican Party, not to mention providing cover for those who were closer to the middle on the issue. Instead, Paul joined the scramble to seem tough on immigration. Or consider social issues like abortion and Planned Parenthood, where Paul has always been on the anti-abortion side along with the religious right. Those are his sincere convictions, to be sure, but it begins to make you wonder what unique views a libertarian is supposed to bring to the Republican coalition.
Most of all, what I missed was something nobody seems eager to talk about this election: the need to scale back the entitlement state. This is the only way to reduce government spending radically and make a dent in our $19 trillion debt. It would have been good to have a libertarian champion to stake out the most radical views on the welfare state and middle-class entitlements, to keep bringing them up whether anybody wanted to talk about them or not, and to put all the other candidates on the spot about what they’re really willing to do to rein in government spending.
But you can see how Paul ended up where he did. A lot of these positions would be unpopular, even among Republicans. (Listen to them scramble to reassure voters they aren’t going to do anything about Social Security.) On most of these issues, it is still earlier than you think. It would be nice to have an active voice in this election trying to push the Overton Window — the range of socially acceptable viewpoints — farther toward small government and free markets, but it’s not necessarily the approach that will win someone the nomination.
Yet there’s a certain irony here. Paul’s whole approach was to be the more reasonable version of Ron Paul, to be the libertarian whose style is less radical and whose views are closer to the mainstream of the Right. In theory, this was going to make it possible for him to win more votes. But it turns out that a reasonable version of Ron Paul is way less interesting and exciting than the old, unreasonable version. In the end, it actually got fewer votes.
The dilemma for Paul is that he had to decide whether he was running to win or to promote his agenda. He decided he was running to win, but in doing so he sacrificed the distinctiveness of his agenda and therefore much of what might have made him a bigger factor in this contest. By his final debate performance, his jabs at opponents were about Ted Cruz not voting on a bill to audit the Fed and Marco Rubio favoring mass surveillance. Whatever validity there was to these attacks, they are small side issues, not election-winners.
We need someone to be a civil liberties scold on issues like drones and bulk data collection. But that isn’t a job for a presidential candidate. It’s a job for a Senate gadfly — the useful role to which Paul will now return.
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