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Since Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, every Republican primary debate for the last three elections (except one) has featured a liberty candidate on stage. The tea party movement that emerged that year was also an ideal populist crossover with the liberty movement, both having the shared goal of less spending and smaller government.

In 2008, Ron Paul’s seemingly quixotic run turned into a full-fledged movement that has become a permanent fixture in American politics. In 2012, Paul took his liberty message to even greater heights by doubling his vote count, performing well in Iowa, coming in second in New Hampshire and was joined in the early GOP debates by Gary Johnson.

2016 has been, for libertarians, basically Rand Paul verses every other Republican—and his opponents are all awful.

Republicans being awful is not new. Republican debates without a libertarian to inject some sanity into the discussion is something we haven’t had to endure for three elections in a row.

This reality slapped me in the face hard last night.

Reason’s Robby Soave took the words out of my mouth on Friday when he said of the Rand-less debate “It’s a sad stage without him”:

Paul’s absence from the stage deprived the spectacle of any semblance of sanity.

While many libertarians—including many of my colleagues at Reason—have dinged Paul for seeming at times insufficiently committed to the cause and too eager to make in-roads with big government conservatives, his faults appear incredibly small when set against the horrors of a Paul-less GOP slate.

Soave continued (emphasis added):

there was no one on stage to root for, because not a single candidate articulated a platform that had anything in common with libertarianism, or even limited government conservatism.

Where was Paul during all of this? He skipped the undercard debate, and instead livestreamed short videos in which he answered questions on Twitter. The move seems to have paid off for him: he picked up more followers than any other candidate except for Trump, according to Twitter.

That’s good for him, but all libertarians should pray he can fight his way back onto the main stage. Absent Paul’s influence, the GOP slate is universally hostile to immigrants, more interventionist than ever before, pro-cop, and even skeptical of free trade.

“In truth, It’s really no more libertarian than the Democratic slate,” Soave concluded.

Rare’s Matt Purple makes similar points about the lack of small government messaging that is the heart of libertarian-leaning conservatism, in a post titled “Republicans aren’t even pretending they care about cutting spending anymore:”

What happened to the tea party? What happened to the right’s supposedly resurgent fiscally conservative wing, which forced profligate Republicans to cut spending or shut down the government trying? Where’s the pressure? Why is it that when Paul Ryan and Barack Obama teamed up to pass last month’s abominable omnibus bill, mainstream conservative sites like Breitbart were mostly exercised over its immigration apostasies and not its general wastefulness? It seems the tea party’s original intent has been drowned in outrage over immigrants and refugees.

The only candidate on last night’s main debate stage who can credibly be associated with the tea party is Senator Ted Cruz. Yet when Rubio accused him of being too tight-fisted with the Pentagon, Cruz pathetically responded that he’d supported a Rubio amendment increasing defense spending.

“Fiscal responsibility, we hardly knew ye,” Purple added.

Indeed. Cruz was the only other candidate last night who had staked out at least a few liberty-friendly positions, of which he’s now backing away from and not just spending.

Last night made me realize that libertarian-conservatives like myself have become spoiled when it comes to presidential elections and debates. The last time I had to endure a libertarian-less presidential election was Bush vs. Kerry in 2004.

As bad as that was, there was no Ron Paul liberty movement to compare it too. Much like the Trump phenomenon, it was a development no one expected or could have predicted, including Ron Paul himself.

So, now, as last night proved, this really sucks.

Whether or not Rand Paul makes the next debate stage is an open question. Whether or not I’ll enjoy a liberty-less debate is not.

Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington and was the official blogger for the 2012 Ron Paul presidential campaign. 

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