It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback on a failed presidential campaign.
I remember when I interned at Ron Paul’s 2008 headquarters, the end of that effort was marked by widespread, often vicious criticism of the campaign staff on Paul-friendly social media. “They wasted our money by not spending it on XYZ!” some supporters said. “The staff didn’t really want to win!” others alleged.
Fortunately I was nowhere near important enough to receive a share of the ire, but I felt bad for the staffers who did—people I’d observed pulling 13-hour days six days a week at a tiny, ugly office for a campaign no one realized would catch fire.
Eight years later, another Paul campaign came to an end today, as Ron’s son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), suspended his presidential bid to focus on his Senate reelection.
I’ve made no secret that my enthusiasm for the younger Paul doesn’t quite match my excitement for the elder in elections past.
But given the rest of the plausible choices for the GOP nomination, Rand Paul regularly stood out as a voice of reason, restraint, and civil liberties on a debate stage packed with politicians whose vocabulary typically consists of fear-mongering, drones, and authoritarianism. Paul’s exit is a loss for the Republican Party, and a loss for any supporter of limited government, no matter how conflicted we’ve been about some of Paul’s recent choices.
I suspect his exit was also inevitable, and it has been since the summer of 2014 when “ISIS” entered our national vocabulary and roster of terrors.
To be sure, buzz around the “libertarian moment” and Paul as one of its most visible (and, famously, “interesting“) incarnations lasted a while longer. But, to my mind, from the moment ISIS appeared Paul was a dead man walking for the White House in 2016, because the terrorist organization precipitated a significant shift in the public mood between the “libertarian moment” days of 2013 and the time campaigning began in earnest in 2015.
After all, ISIS is scary. The beheading videos and horror stories of crucifixion understandably frightened Americans. Unfortunately, it produced a lurch back toward an aggressive foreign policy which broke a years-long trend toward a more Paul-friendly impulse of noninterventionism.
Among Republicans, the people Paul needed to win over to get the GOP nod, the swing toward wanting a more active foreign policy is even stronger:
And tea party-affiliated Republicans, another presumed Paul constituency, were more frightened of ISIS than any other demographic Pew measured.
What Paul’s target primary voters suddenly wanted was the opposite of libertarian, as the popularity of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio well demonstrates.
As James Poulos, my colleague at The Week, has argued, this opinion shift doomed Paul from the get-go—despite the sad fact that ISIS almost certainly would not exist as it does today if we’d been following a noninterventionist foreign policy:
Analysts have pondered why Paul’s campaign — once flagged as a top-tier operation in meaningfulness and buzzworthiness — dropped off so precipitously. Some have laughed that even the Republican most like Bernie Sanders, in his authenticity and directness on the issue of simple justice, still polls in the single digits. But Paul’s struggles can be traced, I think, to a single source — the rise of the Islamic State, which blossomed, in a wan irony, under the very foreign policy Paul himself decries.
Islamic State panic — as far as panics go, reasonable enough — sucked the wind out of Paul’s comprehensively libertarian approach to the Republican campaign. You just can’t talk about American Muslims and African-Americans when public opinion has screwed itself into the dark certainty that a third-generation foe has overwhelmed us all.
All that said, the optimist in me wants to insist on the importance of the long-term trend.
After all, 2013’s swing toward foreign policy restraint was a high point in lengthy drift toward noninterventionism. The last two years have been a setback, to be sure, but the overall arch for the last five decades is moving toward a well-justified weariness of perpetual war in a truly remarkable way:
With the atrocities of ISIS fresh on everyone’s minds, this is a low moment for libertarians—beyond, but including, Paul’s presidential hopes—and anyone else longing for an end to our country’s insane posture as world policeman.
Maybe in another election cycle or two, America will be ready to mind our own business once again.