Is Rand Paul Through? Or Only For Disaffected Outsiders? He Hasn't Given Up on Being the Reasonable About Criminal Justice Republican

There's lots to say about Rand Paul's campaign. Someone's going to say all of it.


You may have read recently in The Atlantic  or (piggybacking on that piece) the Washington Post that Rand Paul's presidential campaign is yesterday's news, man. According to Molly Ball at Atlantic:

Inside and around the campaign, there is a sense that things are not going as well as hoped for Paul, multiple sources told me. "They are in a challenging spot right now," said one Republican operative with knowledge of the campaign. "They are having a hard time reaching out to new constituencies while keeping the base happy." The problem, the operative said, is that Paul's flip-flopping and triangulation have damaged his reputation for ideological purity. "Senator Paul appears, in the minds of Republicans, to have gone from a guy who was standing on principle, who wanted to do things, to a politician who wants to be something," the operative said.

A different GOP strategist put it more succinctly to National Journal's Josh Kraushaar, calling the Paul campaign "a disaster."

I'm not sure what Ball or her sources expected–for Paul to be leading by multiple points in every poll? To be raising more money than all his competitors? To have forced all his competitors to drop out already? 

Considered soberly, especially for a campaign that is very aware it's trying to be oppositional and transitional for its own Party, I'm not sure the "it's all gone wrong" narrative holds up.

Is Rand Paul still a newsmaking figure of national significance with an actual distinct style and set of policy proposals, still the most clearly, as everyone says, "interesting" Republican? Yes, he is. Is he still polling nearly as well as almost all his opponents in most separate polls, and with more independent appeal and a strong ability to beat Hillary Clinton? Yes, he is. Does he still have a unique, among his peers, ability to launch substantive political theater that resonates with a big part of the electorate? Yes he does. Is he raising money? Yes, he is (though not so far finding any single-pocket money bags to fund unaffiliated SuperPACS).

Concluding the Paul campaign is failing, a disaster, a disappointment, is not fully supported by a fair consideration of the evidence and, I hope I don't have to shout this, in JUNE 2015, it is at best hugely premature if it's supposed to be meaningful about what we can expect to happen in 2016 when votes are cast, and at worst a sign of column inches to fill and nothing much to say at its finest/worst. There is just no way to know whether the fears Ball writes about "a campaign that believed it could build a coalition of different kinds of voters based on the candidate's various facets is finding it may instead be a zero-sum game" are really going to turn out to be meaningfully true in the actual election.

Over at Bloomberg, David Weigel has a piece that, while making a very specific point, illuminates both why Rand Paul is apt to outlast many competitors with less distinction or reason to be running besides name recognition, and some of his virtues that unfortunately feed into why many people just can't imagine him going all the way.

It's about how Weigel found folk on the campaign trail in New Hampshire who are fond of both Rand Paul and democratic-socialist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

As I argued in a November 2012 Reason feature, to a certain degree nonpartisan intellectually honest progs should have found a lot to love about Ron Paul and his campaign, and should have preferred him even to Obama.

Why? For Ron Paul's aggressively expressed stances on overseas war, privacy, the drug war, bailouts and crony capitalism, and civil liberties. This is only relevant to progressives for whom income redistribution and abortion don't trump all, which might mean very few, and indeed very few arose from that side of the American scene. But as my feature demonstrated, few did not mean none. The likes of Robert Scheer, Ralph Nader, Glenn Greenwald, Dennis Kucinich, Matt Taibbi, Alexander Cockburn, and others from the left recognized what was good in Paul even if they not outright endorse him. 

While Rand Paul is less precise and aggressive a peacenik than his dad, he's still better than all the other Republicans as a anti-interventionist, better than likely Dem nominee Hillary Clinton, and even arguably better than Bernie Sanders. And he's in there swinging with his dad in his specific pronouncements and policy actions on those other issues as well.

I have no doubt that the people Weigel interviewed are not entirely consistent and rational in how they apply political philosophy to electoral choice. Many, probably most, voters are not, preferring partisan and cultural identity over rigorous political thinking. Undoubtedly many of those folk follow the line I discussed in my article "Ron Paul: Man of the Left" that "Radical outsiders are often attracted to radical outsiders, united in opposition beyond the specifics of proposed solutions." As Weigel wrote, " Paul and Sanders are both courting the voters who want to rebel."

Some of those Sanders/Paul types might indeed highly rate the areas where Paul and Sanders overlap more than they worry about overarching visions of government size and power writ large, or taxes, regulation, and income redistribution. And it's overwhelmingly likely that, though they made for a colorful and counterintuitive bit of on-the-road campaign reporting, that the people Weigel spoke to are a mere notable artifact of fringes of American political culture that are electorally meaningless though culturally fascinating.

I do remember back in my college days in the late 1980s that the 15 or so campus libertarians were able to have more fruitful and interesting conversations with the 25 commies than we were with the vast apathetic and uninterested middle who didn't see American politics from an oppositional angle at all. (I am also reminded of a song written by my former bandmate Ivan Osorio, the lyrics of which in their entirety are: "I'm voting for George Wallace. He's the one who represents me and the silent majority. Gus Hall's my second choice.")

In other Paul news, he used a speech in Baltimore to return to talking about criminal justice and race issues in a way that guarantees that if any Republican can win the independent-leaners aggravated with the GOP brand (without whom it will be very hard for a Republican to win a national election), it's him–exactly as he intends. He used the suicide death in prison of Kalief Browder, rotting in jail unconvicted for years, as a hook to say:

"I can tell you I didn't grow up poor, I grew up middle class or upper middle class and this is me learning about how other people have to deal with life," Paul said. "This young man, 16 years old — imagine how his classmates feel about American justice. Imagine how his parents feel. So the thing is until you walk in someone else's shoes, I think we shouldn't say that we can't understand the anger of people."