If there has ever been an election to prove this approach is best, it’s this one. Bernie Sanders is an unrepentant socialist. Donald Trump is an unrepentant Donald Trump.
Both lead this race right now.
But we’re also forgetting that for many years now, a significant number of libertarians saw hope in trying a different tact (again, one that unquestionably did not pan out this year).
I cannot count how many times since Rand Paul was elected to the senate in 2010 that I’ve heard mainstream Republican voters say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure about Ron, but I really like Rand Paul.”
Over the last five years, young liberty activists would relish how their parents, grandparents and others (usually older friends and family members) who gave them so much grief for supporting Ron Paul had a very different and more positive attitude toward Rand.
Many were evangelicals, hawkish or even establishment-leaning Republican voters not necessarily naturally inclined toward libertarian ideas.
But they did like many of Rand Paul’s ideas. These mainstream Republicans were more open to liberty-favorable arguments about foreign policy, government surveillance, drug prohibition, criminal justice reform and other issues they weren’t likely to hear at most Republican gatherings.
Many libertarians were amused by this Rand-love because we saw both Pauls as so similar on the issues. But we also sensed it wasn’t necessarily about issues.
Pessimists say it’s because Rand is less libertarian than Ron.
Not really. It had little to do with ideology.
It had everything to do with what usually wins elections.
Why wasn’t Rand Paul 2016 more successful?
Those who say Rand Paul exited the election because voters rejected libertarian ideas would also have to assume this election has been driven by ideas.
I see little evidence of this. In fact, this has been the dumbest election of my lifetime.
Cults of personality have almost completely supplanted substance. Libertarians pulling their hair out over former Ron Paul supporters switching to Bernie or Trump might agree. The conservative contributors to National Review’s “Against Trump” symposium might agree.
Those who say Rand Paul failed because he didn’t run as a more hardcore libertarian like his dad would also have to assume that a Ron Paul-style candidacy would’ve attracted the same numbers it did in 2008 or 2012.
I hope it would. More than you know.
But we would have to assume that in an election currently led by two wildly popular anti-establishment, outsider choices in Trump and Sanders, that somehow advertising libertarian ideas more boldly (though they were advertised more boldly than many are recalling) would’ve made a difference.
No one knows that for sure. But what did unfold might be the most dismal lesson for libertarians and is certainly what has bothered me most—were the majority of Ron Paul supporters attracted to liberty or were they just anti-establishment?
The Washington Post’s David Weigel writes “Yes, thousands of voters who supported a fan of Ludwig Von Mises turned around and fell for a democratic socialist.” Added Weigel, “Those kinds of voters, interested in outsiders and a few hard issue stances, are not bound to libertarianism.”
If Ron Paul’s support was potentially more anti-establishment than libertarian in nature—and that support can potentially move to whatever outsider excites them in any election—what kind of strategy would actually move liberty forward in a more favorable election?
Standing with Rand
Why was Ronald Reagan so popular? Conservatives will tell you America fell in love with his conservatism. Not surprisingly, ideologues tend to view everything in ideological terms.
But it’s probably truer that America simply loved Reagan and accepted his conservatism as part of that package.
They liked him. Americans felt like Reagan was on their side.
There’s probably nothing more valuable in terms of winning elections than voters feeling like you’re on their side. It trumps (pun intended) most policy stances.
Many more Republican primary voters loved Ron Paul in 2012 than they did Rand Paul in 2016. Those voters felt like Ron was on their side.
But was there always a limit to that? Was there a ceiling to Ron’s support?
Was Rand wrong to want to build on his father’s support and bust through that ceiling?
How many more voters who were unsure about Ron would’ve been fairly comfortable with Rand? How many Ron supporters, even those disenchanted with Rand in this election, would’ve still been excited and on board for an ascendant Rand Paul campaign?
If Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders weren’t in this election we might know.
How do we win?
Jim Antle notes at Rare, “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.”
Liberty activists would do well to always try to see our leaders as the rest of the world sees them.
If you ever needed a reminder of just how distinguishable Rand Paul is as a libertarian Republican and how different his philosophy is from conventional GOP politics just watch any of the Rand-less primary debates.
Rand can still be successful, as a senator or a presidential candidate in the future, by continuing to do what he’s always done: Explain why libertarianism as a governing philosophy makes sense.
And do it by being on voters’ side.
Reagan’s political enemies always tried to paint his conservatism as something scary. Still, a majority of Americans gave Reagan and his ideas their vote twice. His conservative brand became attractive to a broad coalition of voters.
Libertarianism’s enemies constantly try to paint our philosophy as too extreme. They say we are inherently marginal and cannot be trusted with governance. They’re saying that louder than ever with Rand’s departure.
Neoconservatives should not be trusted with governance, something America agreed on when they soured on the Iraq War and elected Barack Obama.
But to this day, many Republicans still like George W. Bush. They feel like he’s on their side. Obviously there’s an ideological disconnect there between Bush the man and his policies.
Again, this kind of visceral appeal isn’t about policy.
It was never a mistake for Rand Paul to appeal to actual voters and be on their side too. He was right to make libertarian arguments to evangelical audiences. He was right to tell hawks that America would be stronger if we had a more liberty-oriented foreign policy. Paul was right to tell moderates and establishment types that libertarianism offered a path for the GOP to grow and thrive. Paul was right to appeal to progressives on issues where they agree with libertarians.
This isn’t trying to be too many things to too many people. This isn’t pandering.
It’s selling libertarianism. To everyone.
The hard lesson learned for political pragmatists like Rand Paul (and me) in this election is that you can’t simply assume your base will understand the value of what you’re doing (or even see it as valuable) and you can’t take it for granted. Jim Antle makes the same point, writing, “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.”
Still, perception is reality and enough libertarians to matter felt differently.
But other than perhaps trying too hard sometimes, I don’t know that Paul should’ve tried to appeal to voters differently in this election. He certainly shouldn’t have tried to appeal to just libertarians and every other Republican voter less.
Ron Paul is my hero because he first inspired a movement a decade ago that continues to revolutionize Republican and American politics.
In 2016, he tried and it failed.
That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try again.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.