Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race earlier than most people expected. He was wise to do so. Dropping out after coming in fifth in Iowa, but still getting more votes than Jeb Bush and Chris Christie combined, allowed him to leave with a modicum of respectability and with the impression that he wants the party to coalesce and avoid nominating Donald Trump.
There was no path for Rand this year: the most appealing parts of his message were grasped by other candidates, and he recognized early on that this was a campaign where he would be on the outskirts. He missed very few votes in the Senate for that reason, understanding that within the Republican Party’s coalition, his views are the stuff of the Senate, not the Presidency.
Was The Libertarian Moment A Myth?
Paul’s early exit has led some to argue that the “Libertarian Moment” of two years ago was a myth – Ramesh Ponnuru argues that here. Noah Rothman has a slightly different take here. Both are worth reading, though I would disagree on a few points. In 2014, Paul was polling very well in Iowa and New Hampshire – tied for the lead or in double digits in both states. He was connecting with the zeitgeist of the times with his actions in the Senate, and he looked to be a major factor in the coming presidential stakes. Lindsey Graham entered the presidential stakes primarily to have a voice on the debate stage to push back against Paul’s foreign policy views. The assumption was that no matter the outcome, Paul’s campaign would matter.
But as I argued in August of 2014, the problem with the Libertarian Moment is that it needed to be more than a moment if it was going to balance against the rise of socialism among Millennials. Paul’s success or failure in a presidential run isn’t the only measure of the success of libertarian ideas in reaching the next generation, but it is a measure of their acceptance in the Republican Party. And on domestic policy, there’s no question Paul was hampered both by the success of libertarian policy and the crowdout of other candidates seizing his message.
Since the Libertarian Moment discussion, we’ve had the decision of the Supreme Court on gay marriage, the continued march of marijuana legalization in the states, and the broader acceptance of criminal justice reform as a Republican idea. And all the while, Paul’s attempt to become a more palatable Republican candidate on a host of issues dimmed his support from younger libertarians who felt he was less radical than his father.
How The Other Candidates Stole His Message
What is interesting is the degree to which Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have poached Paul’s message on foreign policy. It’s too simplistic to say that the rise of the Islamic State doomed Paul’s presidential chances – they were always a longshot. But what Trump’s criticism of the Iraq War and Cruz’s criticism of our policies toward Libya and Syria and the Arab Spring reveal is that there is a significant appetite among the Republican electorate for a return to the traditional Jacksonian message on foreign policy.
After the policy choices of the past 15 years, Americans grew fatigued of war and were open to a non-interventionist message. They saw the outcomes in the wars precipitated by President Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan as disappointing, and felt those wars were largely not worth the cost in lives and resources.
They saw under President Obama the rise of ISIS, acts of genocide, an emboldened Russia, an aggressive China, refugee crises on the southern border and in the Middle East, Libya spiraling out of control, the resurgence of European anti-Semitism, and terrorist attacks spreading out across the world and into the west. They are worried about the state of the world, and they are right to be.
But the consistent thread that runs through American thought on foreign policy is not Paul’s Jeffersonian streak, which could be described in policy terms as a smaller military, rarely deployed, or a Wilsonian interventionist streak, with a large military frequently deployed, but a Jacksonian streak – a large military, rarely deployed.
Trump and Cruz have seized on this notion because it is where most Americans end up most of the time: believing the purpose of the American military is not building up nations or policing countries for humanitarian reasons or to install democracies, but to act when necessary to destroy those who represent a threat to us and our way of life. Hence Americans rejected the pushes to intervene in Libya and Syria, but are now willing to commit ground troops to destroying ISIS. Most Americans believe the purpose of the American military is to know who the enemy is and know how to find them, hunt them down, smoke them out, and send their souls to hell.
Why Rand Couldn’t Connect With Voters
This is why Paul’s brand of libertarian foreign policy was never able to connect more broadly than in that moment – because he is further out on the issues than the country is. But his presence in the field established a new Overton Window on foreign policy, one that Ted Cruz has been happy to exploit, using him explicitly as he balances between “full neocon” and “libertarian isolationist” (his terms).
That’s a good thing, as Paul’s presence in the field helped improve the foreign policy conversation and pushed back against those who framed those who shares Cruz’s perspective as isolationist or Lindberghian (and yes, they do this). Describing Paul that way might be accepted – describing Cruz that way is laughable, and everyone with a brain knows it. And Trump and Cruz’s populist positions in this regard are helping them succeed – hence why Cruz won a greater percentage of Iowa voters who prioritized terrorism than Marco Rubio.
Paul will almost certainly be in the Senate next year, arguing not against Rubio but against Tom Cotton and others on these issues, and on mass violations of privacy, the droning of American citizens, and a host of other issues important to libertarians.
His presence there is a good thing: it sends the message that his views are not unacceptable to the Republican Party, and that there is a place for them in the coalition. But that place is not at the head, nor is it likely to be there any time soon. We will have to see what lessons Millennials take from the political scene over the next few years. Perhaps they will have to learn the hard way, after they dabble in socialism for a bit, that liberty is the wiser choice.