In the eighth Republican presidential debate, no one took an unequivocal stand against waterboarding. No one clearly advocated criminal justice reform. No one made the case that recent wars for regime change made Americans less safe, not more, and made jihadists more powerful, not less.
That’s because Rand Paul wasn’t there.
Yes, Ted Cruz was wobbly on waterboarding. He still needs some libertarian votes in New Hampshire.
But if this is a sign of how much he’ll defend libertarian values without Paul in the race to keep him honest by forcing him to compete for those votes, it wasn’t encouraging.
Donald Trump also vowed to have a less itchy trigger finger when it comes to war than most of his opponents and by the meager standards of this now Paul-less field, he is relatively antiwar.
But Trump is useless on civil liberties and criminal justice reform, statist on economics and implied that if he must go to war, he will commit war crimes. (Not for the first time.)
John Kasich argued we must simultaneously respect the sacrifices made by law enforcement in the line of duty and the African-American community’s cry for justice.
But Kasich doesn’t make the connection between the federal war on drugs, which he still defends, and the assault on the Fourth Amendment, the mass incarceration of young black men and a whole host of constitutional and social ills.
Without Rand Paul, these three were the bright spots.
How’s that for a 2016 reality check?
The Live Free or Die State is about to vote and the active candidates seem to emphasize the latter half of the state slogan more than the former.
After the Kentucky senator suspended his campaign, Politico Magazine listed me in a piece titled “Here Who Was Wrong About Rand Paul.”
The column they cited was one where I was actually making fun of Dick Morris for his track record of wrong (and often ridiculous) predictions, as the passage they quoted makes plain.
I found out about this dishonor roll from a Twitter user protesting my inclusion.
No, I never went that far out on a limb predicting President Paul, but I did get some important things wrong.
I thought the contrast between him and the rest of the field would be obvious enough come debate time to cure most of the libertarian discontent with his candidacy.
I thought he would be a top-tier candidate and well positioned for a lucky break if one occurred.
When Bill Kristol said Rand would get fewer votes than his father Ron Paul in 2012, I thought it was absurd, a scenario possible only if the younger Paul dropped out much earlier to focus on his senate race.
Well, Rand dropped out much earlier. But it’s likely that if he continued he would have gotten fewer votes than Ron Paul in 2008, not just his high water mark four years later. Even Morris ended up being closer to right than me.
Paul made his share of mistakes, many of which have been well rehearsed. He was never going to have Marco Rubio-like message discipline, but he’d have benefited above all from a more unified message to his libertarian and more conventionally conservative supporters, something that still distinguished from the other 16 candidates and would have survived other tea partiers getting into the race.
The political climate changed between 2013 and 2015 in ways that made that easier said than done, however.
Barack Obama went from wanting to bomb Syria to negotiating a deal with Iran that was sold as an alternative to an Iraq-like preventive war; short-term deficit reduction wrongly reduced the salience of debt and deficits across the ideological spectrum; after ISIS started killing Americans, the country, especially conservatives, became more worried about terrorism than government surveillance.
The Republican Party has had small-government, if not quite libertarian, moments in the past, most recently in the mid-1990s. They are hard to sustain when the issue environment shifts and the politicians whose opposition to big government is more opportunistic slink away.
While many libertarians thought Rand’s 2016 campaign was a radical (or more exactly, insufficiently radical) departure from Ron’s campaigns, much of the non-libertarian world didn’t make that distinction. Retreads have not performed well in this year’s GOP race and for perennial candidates, the third time isn’t always a charm.
Pat Buchanan, the last antiwar conservative to gain traction in Republican primaries before Ron Paul, enjoyed his greatest success in 1996. Buchanan beat Phil Gramm in Louisiana, came in a strong second behind Bob Dole in Iowa, won New Hampshire and finished a distant second overall. When Buchanan launched his third campaign three years later, he was running on the same platform but his support had declined to the point where he had to go third party instead.
Republicans by that point were more interested in winning than purity. The issues that were distinctly Buchanan’s were less important to Republican primary voters and he had competition for the conservative causes that still did animate. George W. Bush talked about a humble foreign policy and the need for exit strategies, not nation-building, offering just enough rhetorical concessions to keep some Buchananites in the fold.
Buchanan and Trump have shown that Republicans are most receptive to antiwar and anti-interventionist arguments when offered from a nationalist and populist perspective, even if a purer libertarian one has been more successful at building a potentially lasting movement. There was considerable, shall we say, blowback, whenever Rand Paul attempted to use such arguments.
A lot of the libertarian criticism of Rand seems to suggest it was wrong for him to try to appeal to the conservatives who make up most of the Republican Party. Dick Morris reminds us that even a broken clock is right twice a day. One of the times Donald Rumsfeld was right was when he talked about going to war with the army you have.
A successful, or even semi-successful, Republican presidential campaign requires appealing to the party’s actual voters. And yes, Ron Paul did that in his congressional—i.e., winning—campaigns. Some of his longtime aides even came from the Christian right. The elder Paul represented congressional districts that voted for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
When Ron Paul sought the Libertarian Party nomination in 1988, there was pushback that he was too socially conservative. Murray Rothbard, who wasn’t exactly a social conservative, was disgusted.
There’s reason to believe Ron Paul’s presidential campaign was also more successful with populist conservatives than many libertarians initially realized. Ron Paul carried 14 counties in Iowa in 2012. Trump carried 9 of them, Cruz 5.
When 2012 Ron Paul delegates to the Iowa state GOP convention were polled about their presidential preferences in last year, nearly 70 percent picked Rand. But the second choice was Cruz, followed by Scott Walker, not a draft Gary Johnson movement.
Disenchanted libertarians contributed to Rand’s diminished fundraising success and activist enthusiasm, but all signs point to the loss of these conservative voters having a bigger impact on his popular support. (I’d love a scientific poll to support or undermine this point. Ah well, a man can dream.)
Paul tried to use libertarianism as a way of bridging the conservative versus moderate debate in the Republican primaries. On some issues, libertarianism would make him the most conservative candidate running. It would also help him be moderate the GOP’s stands on foreign policy, civil liberties and, to a much lesser extent, social issues.
It’s a strategy that could work.
But in the presidential primaries, it likely made Paul sound too measured to everyone involved, making it easier for Cruz to out-conservative him, for Trump to better capture the party’s mood. Social conservatives are too large a part of the Republican base to ignore and moderate Republicans tend to be least centrist on civil liberties and foreign policy. (Self-described moderate to liberal Republicans have also reported surprisingly high support for Trump in many polls.)
That a lot went wrong isn’t an argument against trying again.
Successful political movements try and fail many times. And there are no permanent victories in politics.
Rand Paul’s campaign wasn’t perfect, but it was honorable. Maybe a look at the field without him will make that fact easier to recognize.
Like Joni Mitchell once sang, in a song that might have been about Trump obtaining paradise through eminent domain and then paving it to put up a parking lot, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.