It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
17 months ago, Time called Rand Paul “The Most Interesting Man in Politics.”
On Wednesday, Paul dropped out of the presidential race.
What made Paul interesting, according to Time in 2014, was that he seemed to be the only Republican paying attention to “the emerging demographics, the young minorities, the urban shifting away from older generations and embracing of more libertarian views on privacy, drug sentencing and foreign intervention.”
Would the libertarian-leaning Paul be able to appeal to African-Americans and Hispanics? Would he change his party’s traditional hardline stance on drug prohibition? Would Paul challenge Republicans’ hawkish foreign policy?
Yes, he would. He’s doing all these things now.
He just found it impossible to do them in the 2016 presidential election.
Paul thought, as did many sympathizers (especially me), that a more libertarian message would benefit him electorally in 2016.
We were wrong.
News and events beyond anyone’s control created an election that couldn’t have been more disadvantageous for libertarians.
Many point to the rise of ISIS as the beginning of Paul’s presidential prospects dimming, and perhaps they have a point. Paul’s calls for a strong but smarter defense in which America picks its battles more carefully does not fit on bumper stickers as effectively as “bomb the sh*t out of them” or “make sand glow.”
Then again, the top two finishers in Iowa—Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—have adopted some of Paul’s primary foreign policy talking points, particularly denouncing the Iraq War as a mistake and opposing U.S. interventions in Libya and Syria.
The Atlantic’s Conor Freidersdorf writes:
“Iowa was notable for another outcome that would have been unthinkable four years ago, when Santorum and Mitt Romney nearly tied, Ron Paul came in third, Newt Gingrich took fourth, Rick Perry was fifth, and Michelle Bachman sixth. In that contest, only Paul was a critic of hawkish foreign policy. This year, among the top five finishers who won delegates, only Marco Rubio is a full-throated defender of the GOP establishment’s neocon-inflected foreign policy. Cruz, Trump, Carson, and Paul have all declared the Iraq War an obvious mistake.”
Many libertarians are quick to note that Cruz, Trump and some of the others do not arrive at these more non-interventionist positions as honestly or consistently as Paul. They’re right.
But that’s not the point.
The point is the Republican foreign policy ground has shifted so significantly that diverse views can now be heard. Foreign policy views closer to the Pauls’ have become more common, or acceptable in the GOP, among those of hawks like 2008 nominee John McCain, or in this election, neoconservative champion Marco Rubio. More libertarian-friendly foreign policy views are no longer toxic in the way they were a decade ago, or even when Ron Paul ran.
Few voters in 2016 were turned off by these positions. For someone like me, who was first attracted to Ron Paul in 2007 because of his challenge to GOP orthodoxy on foreign policy—this is monumental.
And it’s due in no small part to the enduring influence of the liberty movement of Ron and Rand Paul.
So what was so different in 2016? Why has it been so difficult for a libertarian Republican?
One word: Trump.
Ask Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina or even Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, if they thought their campaign prospects might’ve been drastically different if not for the Donald Trump juggernaut.
Honest candidates would admit The Donald blindsided everyone.
But Trump’s popularity had a significantly negative effect on Rand Paul.
A major component of the Ron Paul movement that was successful in 2008 and 2012—and upon which Rand planned to build on—was its anti-establishment appeal. In fact, if you wanted to dethrone political elites in either party in 2008 or 2012, Ron Paul was really the only campaign that represented that sentiment.
Ron Paul also drew from right and left to unite anti-establishment voters.
In 2016, Trump has been—by far—the primary anti-establishment candidate on the right, with Ted Cruz also attracting some of those types of voters. Ben Carson too.
There are many outsider or anti-establishment candidates to choose from in this election.
The Democrats have their own anti-establishment juggernaut in Bernie Sanders, who has surprised Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment as much as Trump snuck up on the GOP brass.
It has bothered me, and other libertarians, how many former Ron Paul supporters seem to be supporting Trump or Sanders in this election. Those men aren’t even close to being libertarian.
It makes one wonder how many of the millions who voted for Ron Paul were attracted to libertarianism—and how many just wanted to raise hell?
I don’t know.
Fed-up progressives in 2008 and 2012 found agreement with Ron Paul on foreign policy and civil liberties. In 2016, Sanders fills that appeal.
I’ve wondered if Ron Paul, if he ran this year, could have repeated his past success? I honestly don’t know that either. It’s an open question at best.
Those who say it was Rand’s alleged lack of ideological purity compared to his father that made the difference don’t seem to notice that Sanders isn’t exactly a purist on foreign policy—and none of his supporters seem to care. Many aren’t even looking at specific policies. Some Sanders’ supporters don’t even know what socialism is.
They just hate Hillary and like him.
Paul is significantly better on foreign policy than Sanders, from libertarian or progressive perspectives.
In fact, it’s not even close.
Again, has it mattered? Why didn’t this pull more independents and young progressives in Rand’s direction?
Because the anti-establishment appeal in this election seems to have little to do with ideas. For ideas-based campaigns like Rand’s, that’s a major problem.
Which brings us back to Trump.
If the opposite of libertarian is authoritarian, Trump has satisfied that always present nationalistic urge for a strongman who will “tell is like it is” at the expense of America’s most basic liberal values. If immigration is a problem, Mexicans are “rapists.” If there’s a terrorist attack, ban Muslims, shut down their mosques and kill their families. Of course, Trump absolutely thinks the government should be spying on all Americans. Eminent domain is a wonderful government tool, according to Trump. Cronyism is fantastic, in Trump-world.
He will solve every problem through the sheer will of his ego, bank account and stump speeches. He’s mocked the handicapped, demeaned women and behaved like a schoolyard bully throughout this election.
His supporters have loved every minute of it, including some, regrettably, who used to support Ron Paul.
Some have wondered if Trump’s rise has been fascist in nature. Whatever it is, it’s not libertarian.
It’s also not even remotely ideas-based, with the possible exception of the immigration issue.
National Review was right to condemn Trump by pointing out that he isn’t a conservative. But Trump supporters don’t care.
I’ve said during this campaign that Trump could join ISIS and his supporters would defend it. Trump just recently made a similar point—that he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and his supporters would still like him.
Rand Paul denounced Trump at every turn, as did other Republicans—and it didn’t matter. Trump has maintained a commanding lead in many polls for six months. He’s positioned well to take New Hampshire.
What’s an ideas-focused, outreach-based, tolerance-driven libertarian Republican presidential candidate supposed to do in this environment?
Fight for as long as you can until it becomes clear there’s no longer a path to victory.
After Iowa, that became clear. When Paul and others said he would “shock the world” on caucus night he believed it, as did every Paul foot soldier who worked so hard to make that happen. Many I talked to had me convinced it could happen.
On paper, it made sense. The voter math added up.
It still didn’t happen, much to everyone’s regret. I know I was depressed on caucus night. Based on his numbers, Paul wouldn’t have even been in this week’s New Hampshire debate.
So he dropped out. It was the right decision. He needs to keep his senate seat.
The only thing worse than not having a Paul in the White House would be a Paul-less American politics.
As Rand Paul has said many times, the GOP must evolve or die—on foreign policy, domestic policy, drug policy, immigration policy and so many other policies.
That hasn’t changed. At all.
On foreign policy, as noted prior, there has already been a major shift even in this God-forsaken election. It’s libertarian Republicans and their supporters who’ve led on that front.
Thanks Rand Paul. Thanks Ron Paul.
Thank you liberty movement.
In the last debate, when a young black YouTube star asked the Republican candidates about police brutality and racial tension, the moderators only allowed Rand Paul to answer the question.
Why? Because he was the only Republican on that stage even capable of addressing the question in a way that would make his party look good.
I wrote last week:
To varying degrees, some of the Republicans on that debate stage Thursday have warmed to ideas like criminal justice reform or addressing drug war related problems. Some have not.
But regardless, none have led on these issues like Paul. None have gone to the lengths Paul has to say that the poor—particularly African-Americans and Hispanics—have been disproportionately impacted by our broken justice system.
No Republican running in 2016 but Paul has addressed how big government is destroying minorities’ lives in ways that many conservatives don’t see, or perhaps don’t want to see.
“Only Paul is leading on these issues,” I added.
I also noted that some other Republicans have moved in a libertarian direction on issues like criminal justice reform and the drug war.
Does anyone think this would be happening if not for the presence and influence of Rand Paul, and his father before him, on the political scene?
Does anyone believe President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder would’ve moved the ball on mandatory minimum sentencing reform if not for Sen. Paul leading on that issue first?
Thanks Rand Paul.
Thank you liberty movement.
Paul continues to lead on these issues:
Republicans must change their tone and overall message to reflect a more inclusive conservatism that appeals beyond just old white guys.
It’s libertarian Republicans and the liberty movement who lead on this.
For Paul’s overall mission to fail—making the Republican Party and America more libertarian—we have to believe that the various anti-libertarian forces that have rose in 2016 will prevail, endure and America is about to enter a darker, more authoritarian era.
I don’t believe that. I think 2016 is a blip on the map in the American experience and there are many more positive factors favorable to liberty currently in play than sinister ones.
I believe Americans will eventually opt for leaders and ideas that shine a brighter path.
It’s important to not get bogged down by the negative. We can “what if” 2016 to death. What if Rand had done this or done that…
Here’s some I’ve thought of: What if Edward Snowden could have made his NSA revelations in 2016 instead of 2013? What if Trump ran in 2020 instead? What if ISIS never happened? (if we followed Rand Paul’s foreign policy, as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough notes, ISIS wouldn’t have happened).
What if Ron Paul never ran for president? Then none of us would be talking about anything, on the liberty front at least.
But Ron Paul did run. Rand Paul ran. Hopefully he will again.
Hopefully Congressman Thomas Massie and Justin Amash continue to ascend. Hopefully more follow in their path.
Hopefully the liberty movement continues to grow, learn and mature so that when events and timing favor us the next time—and there will be a next time—we can take advantage of those moments.
Time’s Michael Scherer asked about Rand Paul in 2014, “Can he fix what ails the GOP?”
He not only can—and is—but the liberty movement remains the only movement in America ideologically-equipped and influential enough to fix what’s wrong with our politics and country.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.