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.