Rand Paul: 2Libertarian 2Be Electable?


Kevin Williamson–who also wrote about the Ron Paul campaign for National Review–writing at Politico throws some cold water on those excited that Rand Paul seems to be rising in reputation and attention so quickly that it's a safe bet he could actually become president.

Williamson points out:

Paul's libertarianism is intended to offer a little something for everybody, on the left and right—spending cuts for the Republican base, legal relief for potheads, a presidential pat on the head for gay people. But if he gets serious about substantive reform along these lines, his libertarianism is instead going to offer something to outrage everybody…..

We spend almost all of the federal budget on a handful of programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense. So any plausible, politically sustainable campaign to impose some sanity on America's national finances is going to mean reforming—i.e., cutting—all of those.

How unpopular is that? Solid majorities of Americans oppose cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits and raising taxes to pay for them, even though a larger majority also believes that the cost of those programs will create economic problems. The number of people who think we spend too much on the military hasn't topped the 50-percent mark since the Vietnam War. Think about George W. Bush's attempt at Social Security reform, which left him the loneliest man in Washington. Or consider that in 2012, fiscal conservative wonk-emperor Paul Ryan ran for the vice presidency on a campaign that blasted the Obama administration for making Medicare cuts. Which is to say, even the man in Washington most associated with the words "fiscal conservative" knows better than to run as one. 

I think Williamson is right on the big points: American dedication to libertarian principles writ large—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is great; people should mostly be left alone to manage their own lives as long as they are not hurting others; government is too big and spends too much–tends to shatter when it runs up against any actual shrinking in any government function that they think affects them in any way.

Rand Paul has alternately evaded and embraced the term "libertarian" and can certainly not be expected to enthusiastically advocate every idea about politics anyone in the larger libertarian movement has ever advocated as he runs for president–especially not the anarcho-Rothbardian end, which his father has few problems with although he never self-identifies as anarchist himself. 

Last time I talked to him, Rand Paul was openly pretty weary of being pinned down on extreme questions of applying libertarian principal to specific political questions. Rachel Maddow taught him back in 2010 when it came to free association and private property and civil rights law that that's a losing game. As Slate notes, Rand has announced he no longer wants to answer questions about what his father Ron says, does, or believes. 

But as I wrote in the New York Times 14 months ago, before the current Rand Paul wave began cresting, what he has going for him, if what libertarians believe about the manifest dangers of overreaching and overspending and overborrowing and overinvading government is true, is reality, and the hope that someday, somewhere soon, Americans will realize that merely lowering yearly deficits is not sufficient to quash the dangers of government debt threatening our future.

So it's ultimately too soon to say how big a deal Rand Paul will get to be nationally in a presidential context. But plenty of people seem to be able to consider voting for him for president now, as he polls near the top of the prospective GOP field for 2016. I can imagine, though, that it is easier for media and voters to admire him more as a fresh-air senatorial maverick than to gird up for the sort of wrenching (however necessary) changes in national politics a President Rand Paul would imply.

I have no doubt that right now serious libertarianism will be a hard national sell, even to a Republican Party that in theory should be able to embrace the small-government part. It also seems likely that any liberal/progressive affection for the anti-security state, pro-civil liberties Rand Paul will crash and burn against the wall of his opposition to abortion and government income transfer programs. Paul told me in my New York Times piece of the need for more social tolerance and minority outreach for the GOP, but I think no amount of that will overcome the abortion and income transfer stuff when it comes to winning over Democrat-leaning independents.

That said, a Santorum-like focus on being "socially conservative" is unlikely to be a national winner for the Party at any time moving forward into the 21st century, so there's another good reason–besides reality itself–for some major Party to suck it up and offer something close to real libertarianism.

Then there's foreign policy. Recently, as we face an actual old fashioned Cold War era crisis, Rand Paul has tried to balance between the strongly noninterventionist, America can be seen as an evil empire itself, wing of his father's fan base and a more jingoistic Republican base attitude. In doing so, Paul has managed to both link himself to Reagan, not advocate military action, and still talk vaguely tough against Russia and do no America-blaming.

This hasn't been good enough to keep Rick Santorum–whatever you think or don't think about that guy, he did rack up the second highest number of primary votes for the 2012 GOP race and thus is presumptively "next in line"–from saying Paulite foreign policy is basically a weak, Obamaite disgrace no Republican can countenance, indeed "a very serious threat to our own security."

I think it will be best for Paul's presidential ambitions if the American people are not feeling themselves, America's interests, or even America's vague and overweening sense of international amour propre threatened in 2015-16. Americans don't like war, to be sure–until government and media start telling them it's necessary and they aren't going to have themselves or their sons and daughters drafted to fight it. 

No doubt, how libertarian Rand Paul can get away with being will be a continuous topic of pundit and voter concern between now and the end of next year.

What Paul told me back in January might be worth revisiting in thinking about these issues:

"I've got half the libertarians on the Internet beating up on me for not being pure enough," Paul says, "and the rest of the mainstream beating up on me for being too libertarian. It's a box they put me in."

"But I'm in the business of trying to advance a philosophy and advance an economic program that's better for the country. And I'm also in the business of winning elections and trying to convince people to come in the direction of smaller government and more individual liberty," Paul says. "I sometimes wish for a little more forbearance among the purists, but I'm trying to do the best I can to advance a philosophy and program that is more individual liberty for everyone and is pulling in the direction of what some of the purists might want" even if they "might not see it as pure as they'd like."