Students of politics will recall that the 1991 runoff for governor of Louisiana featured an unappetizing choice between the openly racist Republican David Duke and the three term incumbent Edwin Edwards who had twice been tried, though acquitted on corruption and racketeering charges. (Edwards would eventually be convicted following his third trial in 2000. The dismal options in that election spawned the famous pro-Edwards bumper sticker; “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
As I ponder the growing possibility of a Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, I begin to understand how those Louisianans must have felt.
On the one hand, we have Hillary Clinton, a woman with whom I profoundly disagree on nearly every issue. She would almost certainly wreck the economy, burdening our children with another layer of debt and drowning us in new taxes and regulations. And, the thought of Hillary Clinton appointing a Supreme Court justice fills me with dread. Worse, unlike most Democrats she doesn’t even have the virtue of being good on issues of war and peace. She is every bit as interventionist as the most hawkish Republican neoconservative. And whatever current commitment she makes to civil liberties, gay rights, and such, they ring more of opportunistic political conversion than genuine conviction. And on top of all that, I believe Hillary is fundamentally dishonest, a woman who simply could not tell the truth if her life depended on it. I would rather eat ground glass than vote for her.
On the other hand, we have Donald Trump. Even if you assume that he’s telling the truth about his ever evolving views, it is hard to find anything that I can agree with him on. OK, he would cut taxes (though his actual plan is economic nonsense) and protect Second Amendment rights, but that’s about it. His positions, when not simply incoherent, are dreadful on issues ranging from entitlement reform to health care, from eminent domain to corporate welfare. He has a terrible record on civil liberties, even worse than Hillary. His opposition to free trade is antithetical to economic growth as well as liberty. And, of course, there is his ignorant, xenophobic, and frankly racist position on immigration. Indeed, throughout his campaign, Trump flirts with racism and racists, from his casual retweeting of “white power” memes to his toleration of anti-Semitic and white nationalist elements within his campaign. He also has tolerated, and sometimes seemed to encourage violence by his followers. He exhibits utter contempt for constitutional norms, even if he understands them. At bottom, he scares the hell out of me.
What then should a lover of liberty and a believer in limited government do? The crook or the bigot?
My friend Jonah Goldberg suggests that the only real option remaining may be SMOD (the sweet meteor of death). https://twitter.com/smod2016?lang=en
Yes, SMOD would likely mean the end of all life on earth. But after looking at the way this current election is headed, wouldn’t we deserve it? Count me in SMOD2016!
Rand Paul has ended his presidential campaign, and the postmortem begins.
Paul was once celebrated as the avatar of a burgeoning “libertarian moment.” Now, the failure of his campaign is being taken as evidence, somewhat gleefully by big-government social conservatives like National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru (http://bit.ly/1JYgrHr), more mournfully by libertarian pessimists like Jerry Taylor of the Niskanen Center (http://fxn.ws/1GpBpYg). The truth as I see it is, not surprisingly, more complex.
A political campaign was always a flawed and limited vehicle for the larger libertarian goal of a freer, more tolerant, more peaceful society. Candidates must inevitably operate within the constraints of the existing political system, one that requires compromises, waters down principles, and reveals flaws. Ultimately voters are looking at candidates and positions on particular issues of specific priority to each of them, rather than broad political philosophies.
And, to be blunt, we libertarians need to admit that we are still a minority of the electorate. Some estimates suggest that only about 11 percent of voters self-identify as libertarian. That number may be artificially low due to unfamiliarity with the term, but even if you use the broadest libertarian definition, being economically conservative and socially liberal, the numbers remain uncomfortably low. Using other criteria, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight estimates that slightly less than a quarter of the electorate leans broadly libertarian. And, even those who might be considered libertarian may hold views on specific issues that are not libertarian, and/or may not vote in a libertarian manner. Remember those signs during the Obamacare saying “Keep the government out of my Medicare.”
That’s not quite as bad as it looks though. We need to remember that most Americans are simply not ideological at all. The numbers of Americans who can be classified as conservative or liberal does not greatly exceed the number of libertarians. A committed minority can move elections. Still, libertarians should not indulge the fantasy that this is a libertarian country.
Rand, himself, attempted to walk a fine line in this regard. His strategy was to start with the base of libertarian voters who supported his father, and then expand that base by attracting more traditional conservatives. This sometimes led him to take non-libertarian positions, emphasizing his social conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage. He struggled early in trying to define his positions on foreign policy in the face of ISIS and the fear of terrorism, veering from traditionally libertarian skepticism about interventionism and regime change to more mainstream conservative positions on the IRAN deal and limiting the admission of refugees. He championed his opposition to NSA spying, but seldom talked about cutting taxes or spending. He was too often neither fish nor foul. Paul himself called it “libertarinish.” As a result, he often alienated libertarians, without attracting conservatives.
On top of that, Rand’s position as “the outsider” who challenges the establishment was usurped by the rise of Trump. When compared to The Donald, he looked increasingly conventional. He was no longer “the most interesting man in politics,” as Time magazine once christened him.
Could a better strategy or a better candidate have performed better? Perhaps, but most likely not in this environment at this time.
Still, we are better off because he tried. All too often, Rand was the lone voice of reason on the GOP debate stage, warning about the dangers of military adventurism and calling for greater concern about the poor and minorities. In a GOP field that is fighting over which country to invade next or which group to demonize the most, it was worthwhile simply to have a voice for the truth. The other candidates obviously have not paid attention to him, but maybe – just maybe – some Americans did. If so, that’s fewer Americans headed down the road to Trumpism.
Progress is almost always incremental. America is a conservative country in the sense that it instinctively resists great political upheavals or radical changes in direction. Change, in whatever direction, is almost always incremental. If we want to change things, we must offer real world, incremental solutions that move us in the right direction.
And, we should remember that Rand was a candidate, not the libertarian moment or the libertarian movement. He lost, the fight goes on.