Rand Paul

Rand Paul: Can The Bucks Start There?

A libertarian-leaning maverick strives to win the money (or just the love) to gain the White House

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Rand Paul
Gage Skidmore

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is likely to run for president. That's not exactly news, but the libertarian-leaning senator got some major earned media out of that fact last week, a front page story in the New York Times. It treated him seriously enough as a potential candidate to zoom in on the vital question of money: can this on-the-rise outsider with some heterodox opinions raise enough to win a presidential race?

The story introduces you to a handful of big, big money potential donors—none of whom are yet on the record as saying they'll bring out that big, big money via SuperPACs or other uncoordinated spending to help Paul. (Neither Paul nor his RandPAC team would comment on his money issues to me for this article.) The Times story continues Paul's delicate public dance with the weight that accompanies the term libertarian, one he doesn't run from but isn't willing to carry entirely. (This story sums him up in paraphrase as calling libertarianism "only one of several influences on his thinking.")

Big money generally doesn't shape or move mainstream opinion these days, the way a Paul campaign might have to, but just delivers it in a weighty, concentrated form. This is vividly demonstrated in a recent Politico report based on off-record interviews with over two dozen Wall Street big-money boys.

Even ones who might normally want to help fund a Republican presidential candidate, Politico found, are ready to settle for the normal, centrist, likely Democratic candidate (so we now think, but remember we thought that about her in 2006 as well) Hillary Clinton:

The darkest secret in the big money world of the Republican coastal elite is that the most palatable alternative to a nominee such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky would be Clinton, a familiar face on Wall Street following her tenure as a New York senator with relatively moderate views on taxation and financial regulation.

"If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine," one top Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer said over lunch in midtown Manhattan last week. "We could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It's Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody's worst nightmare."

A genuine freaks vs. the student council dynamic writ large is at play here. Paul is, whether he likes it or not, on the wrong side of that dynamic according to many money folk, for the same reason he is to many normal folk—that much libertarianism scares them.

A real "it musn't happen here" fear animates many Americans at the blood-chilling notion of a candidate like Paul who wants to actually balance the budget or restore government (and the military) to constitutional limits, stabbing at crony capitalism and federal drug policy along the way. Michael Gerson at The Washington Post is pre-emptively linking Paul with Barry Goldwater's historical defeat in 1964—don't make that mistake again, GOP!, by nominating someone willing to actually grapple with a government that does more than it should and spends more than it can continue to.

Gerson and his ilk are right to be scared, even if it isn't clear from what wealthy GOP regulars Paul will get his campaign money. It's not that Paul can't raise big money. While both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum outpaced Rand's father Ron Paul in 2012 in primary votes and being treated as serious contenders, when it came to official campaign contributions, Paul nearly outpaced the two of them combined with his $40 million (though those two did better than Paul in the world of uncoordinated GOP supporting SuperPACS).

Speaking of superrich outsiders, eccentric superscience-minded financier Peter Thiel did, as the New York Times story notes, give over $2.5 million to Endorse Liberty, a SuperPAC ostensibly dedicated to Ron Paul, in the 2012 election cycle. It aimed its money pretty much entirely on a series of YouTube videos. Everyone I talked to in 2012 from either the grassroots or the official Ron Paul campaign thought that despite the Thiel bucks that SuperPAC did pretty much nothing useful or positive for the campaign. Liberty for All, another existing PAC dedicated to what it sees as "liberty candidates" in a Paulite mode, raised and spent $1.7 million in 2012, and boasts of a 90 percent success rate overall and of having won all four federal races it spent on. But that's chump change in the face of a Sheldon Adelson.

It is unclear right now if anyone with megabucks is prepared to do a big uncoordinated SuperPAC push for a Paul presidential run. And given the record of SuperPACs in 2012, it might not make or break him either way.

Still, plenty of disaffected-from-the-establishment Republicans are willing to give to what they think are alternative campaigns (even if that money doesn't always get where they expect). As Open Secrets points out, Paul's campaign committee is still strong with masses of small donors, pulling in over $5 million from small donors since 2009 and hugely outpacing Senate averages.  

First quarter 2014 was the second-best fundraising quarter of Sen. Paul's career. (And a presidential race would likely make fans far more generous.) Open Secrets notes that of Paul's $1.4 million first quarter 2014 take, $851,000 was from small donors. They also report that PACs of any sort don't seem to love him much yet—he's pulled in only $14,000 from them so far this year, and just $94,000 over the entire two-year cycle so far.

Whether Paul's opponents like it or not, the past year since his career-defining anti-domestic-drone (and anti-unchecked executive warmaking power) filibuster, Paul has managed to kick ass over his opponents in carving out a distinctly interesting image, one not altogether insalubrious to the mainstream, via earned media, which campaign workers over the years have told me always beats paid media. Paul is a very interesting character to the media, and though one can expect the attention to get rougher as 2015 approaches, it's hard to make him seem completely unsuitable to a wide swath of both Republicans and independents. 

What will it matter? Who knows? Milton Friedman believed that libertarianism will rise to influence in America out of crisis more than out of ideological change qua ideological change. Vis a vis Paul, as I wrote in The New York Times last February (predicting the rise of Paul pre-filibuster):

The libertarian wing argues…that Republicans need to separate a core limited-government constitutionalism from the obsessions of other party factions, whether it's the social traditionalism of the religious right (losing its grip on a changing America) or an expansionist foreign policy (unaffordable and dangerous). At stake, they think, is not just their party's viability, but America's solvency. From the libertarian point of view, we might soon be facing the choice of Paul 2016 or bust.

If Paul's radicalism requires radical times to sweep the nation, then if the economy doesn't dump more than it already has, if Obama hasn't gotten us into another war we are already sick of, Paul might seem less necessary a choice.

Libertarians, who tend toward rationalism and logic in our political thinking, can forget that the average voter doesn't necessarily approach politics that way. Libertarians might think it natural that a voter would have a consistent sense of how you think government should function and support or vote for the politicians who seems to match that. If that's the standard, Paul might not have that much mass appeal nationally.

But many voters just vote for a guy they kinda like, or the guy their relevant tribe has anointed, or the guy who says one thing that really resonates with them. James Antle, who wrote about Paul's first Senate campaign for Reason, sees the possibility that even the anti-abortion Paul might be out-social-conservatived in key early states, so it's also true that sometimes being 90 percent of what a voter wants can fail if you don't sell the point in the precise way that rings their bell. That is—it's impossible to know right now how well Paul will do.

But if other things swing his way in terms of momentum within the primaries—and Paul's conservative Tea Party bonafides are thorough on most fiscal and social issues and Iowa and New Hampshire were two of his dad's best performances—or even just a sharp, vivid moment or two (like the filibuster), Paul can win votes from people who don't buy into libertarianism in full or even in large part.

I found in the trenches of Ron Paul fandom while researching my 2012 book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired many newly minted hardcore libertarians. But I also found many fans who just found something about Ron Paul they liked—often something as simple as his outsider status, his demeanor, or apparent serious consistency over his career. Then they either lied to themselves about or were willing to overlook all the frontiers of libertarianism they weren't willing to walk with Dr. Paul, and supported him anyway.

Rand Paul, then, doesn't need the libertarian millennium or overwhelming piles of cash to proceed to victory, necessarily. (Though it couldn't hurt.) Paul will continue to be asked tough questions trying to force him to say something so radically libertarian that the asker thinks/hopes it will hobble him with normal voters, or alternately make his hardcore base think he's a phony if his response isn't libertarian enough. He'll continue to walk a line of sometimes letting his libertarian freak flag fly, like at Harvard last week, while being a good party man—endorsing crummy Senate candidates like Maine's Susan Collins and reminding people that though he's willing to call himself "libertarian-ish" he'd never endorse a Libertarian Party candidate (after his dad in 1988, that is).

Paul will similarly endorse libertarian-friendly conclusions about foreign policy (let's not announce we will nuke Iran to show Iran that nukes are bad) even as he avoids giving fully libertarian reasons for it (stressing "let's just keep our cards to our chest, OK?" vs. "pre-emptive mass murder is monstrous and not actually about defending America.") And to calm down those who get nervous about anyone who doesn't seem publicly eager to nuke Iran if the cause arises, he offered this week a bill to cut off all aid to Palestinians if they don't recognize Israel's right to exist. Given that his meta-point about such aid is that we should end all of it—he'd even say to Israel itself in the past—this seems a clear case of positioning and signaling more than a core policy imperative.

It's a difficult and interesting tightrope to watch Paul walk, never mind the money. Evidence so far shows that even if he can't win over Wall Street or the existing big money Republican establishment, Paul and Paul's ideas will have at least sufficient cash behind them in the next couple of years to launch. And then maybe there will be a new, different big money Republican establishment.