Rand Paul: Does He Need to Be More Libertarian, Or Do Fans Just Want Him to be More Libertarian?

To many libertarians, the battle of ideas trumps the battle for office.


Yesterday I reported on the leaders of the three Rand Paul SuperPAC's thoughts on what Rand Paul needs to do in tonight's Fox News sponsored Republican presidential candidate debate. The Kentucky Senator has received way more public advice about how to repair a perceived to be (though not necessarily for overwhelmingly cogent reasons) crippled campaign than any other of the non-poll-leaders.

Paul's own plan, he announces, is to not play nice and to "say what I believe in and stand my ground." That strategy did a lot to propel Ron Paul to national prominence in May 2007 when he stood his ground against Rudy Giuliani (who Paul ended up trouncing in the primaries) over blowback.

Why? Unlike most of the others, hell probably all the others but Trump who has his own emotional appeal for very different reasons, lots of people care about Rand Paul's campaign. Even people far more likely to slam and criticize him than praise him still care, if not about his fate or those of his operatives, the fate of the ideas he is seen to represent.

Because, whether he likes it or not, whether he lives up to it or not, Paul and his campaign stand for something, something that has nothing to do with whether you think he's a skilled politician, sincere, or likely to stand strong against outside pressure for what you want him to stand for. His campaign wouldn't be working at all if not for this libertarian edge, inherited from his father and relied on frequently by the candidate himself. But even libertarian partisans can't be sure it won't also be the death of him electorally.

Herewith, a survey of some prominent analysis, advice, and angst for Rand Paul in the week leading up to the debate, stressing this question that uniquely haunts him, the candidate who uniquely stands for (or is seen to stand for) a coherent and radically changemaking theory of government's purpose and practice, a theory best called libertarian.

•Jonathan Bydlak, a former staffer and fundraiser for Ron Paul's presidential campaign in 2008, speaks up in Politico for that much-discussed "Ron Paul fan who thinks Rand is a sellout" contingent. Bydlak tells a stirring story, which I heard variants of dozens of times while researching my 2012 book Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, of being driven to political action by the lifelong ideological consistency and boldness of this curious candidate, Ron Paul.

Bydlak blames an apparent lack of similar enthusiasm for Rand so far on the notion that "his pragmatism has evolved over the years into boilerplate Republican talking points. Today he is a candidate who has very few unique positions on anything."

Bydlak critiques Rand "Drone Filibuster" Paul for blandly supporting a specific drone use that killed two hostages back in April, for wanting airstrikes against ISIS, for his vacillation over the Iran nuke deal, and for various perceived equivocations on social issues:

He said gay marriage "offends" him, and called for tent revivals to combat America's "moral crisis" while simultaneously supporting ending marriage licenses altogether. He supports lowering sentences for drug offenses, and is publicly courting the marijuana industry, while very consistently making clear he opposeslegalization. And in recent weeks, he's gone so far as to apparently jump onto the Trump bandwagon in seeking to defund "sanctuary cities."

He spent months reaching out to minority communities and branding himself as a "different kind of Republican" on police brutality and criminal justice reform—but when Baltimore was burning following Freddie Gray's suspicious death in police custody, Paul couldn't have been more tone deaf, scoffing how glad he was his "train didn't stop" in Baltimore, and offering what seemed to be 1990s-era Moral Majority musings on the downfall of the family.

Bydlak also hits Paul's lack of consistency on military budget cuts, and concludes that being more like Ron is key to Paul's campaign re-igniting. Note that a lot of that stuff is about tone and messaging, not necessarily about what actions we might expect from a President Paul. But ideological warriors find tone and messaging telling about whether a politician really, truly gets it.

• David Weigel, on the campaign trail with Paul in Iowa this week for the Washington Post, says Paul is ready to distinguish himself as the GOP dove tonight:

He vowed that he will ask his Republican presidential rivals, face to face, whether they "want to always intervene in every civil war around the world."

"I want to be known as the candidate who's not eager for war, who thinks war's the last resort," Paul said on a weekend swing through Iowa. "When we fight, we fight to win, but much of our involvement has led to consequences that made us less safe. You'll see that come into sharp distinction."

• Paul griped to Weigel in the above story, truthfully, that "I'm one of the few Republicans who has a litany of people whose job is to be full-time critics of mine," Paul said. "Nobody else seems to have as much sniping going on. But I think the debates will put things in sharp relief."

Jack Hunter at Rare explores that phenomenon of Paul's unique travails as the guy who appeals to the libertarians. As I noted above, these critiques are because a lot of libertarians have a strong felt need for some national political figure to wave their flag, and Paul is the only one at all close enough to even bother complaining when he doesn't rise to the height of a libertarian's dream:

[Some] libertarians dismiss Paul if he takes un-libertarian positions on too many things. Other libertarians dismiss Paul if he takes un-libertarian positions on just one or two things.

Among Republican voters, generally speaking, only libertarians do this.

The only dissension moderate and establishment types have with Jeb Bush is whether he can pull it off. Evangelicals don't constantly question whether Huckabee or Santorum are evangelical enough. You won't find writers at the Washington Free Beacon or Weekly Standard worried about whether Rubio and Graham are true neoconservatives.

They know these candidates are on their side….

the notion that a candidate that has an unparalleled libertarian record should be completely dismissed when he does things to reach out to (or not repel) other voters he needs to win is something that is peculiar to libertarians within Republican politics.

If Jeb Bush got the nomination there will not be establishment types worried he's not establishment enough. Mike Huckabee's evangelical base will not worry he's not evangelical enough. Marco Rubio's neoconservative supporters will certainly not worry he's not neocon enough.

If Sen. Paul gets close to the nomination–or even the White House–there will unfortunately be too many libertarians worried he's not libertarian enough.

That's a disadvantage Rand Paul has with his core base. It's a disadvantage no other Republican will have with their core bases or at least to the same problematic degree….

• Todd Seavey at Splice argues that Rand Paul should stick to the basics of his unique selling proposition: an actual coherent set of beliefs about politics and government.

That very same set, of course, that makes it even make sense to try to find air between statements and philosophy, something that all the other clearly non-intellectually-coherent candidates don't get dinged with. When people sense, even if inchoately, that you are just a Party politician seeking a nomination, they neither want nor expect you to share every one of their beliefs.

When they sense, even inchoately, that you have a serious political philosophy, they realize that even one area of disagreement means that voter and candidate have a worrisome gap in worldview, or that the candidate is not just trying to smilingly fit in with whatever political tribe they are moving among, and that makes many people nervous. I encountered this phenomenon over and over in interviewing GOP primary voters about Ron Paul in 2012.

•  W. James Antle at Washington Examiner wonders about whether lack of sufficient libertarianism is Paul's current problem. (Antle wrote Reason's first big Rand Paul profile in 2010.) He deftly sums up the core dilemma:

Rand Paul needs to be true to himself if he is going to stand out, and he can't be seen as equivocating or flip-flopping. But there also needs to be some realism about the Republican primary electorate as it is in 2015-16, not just how young libertarians wish it will be in the future.

• For their part, in a very, very long and pretty clearly campaign-managed Breitbart profile, the Paul campaign insists it is full of hearty hard workers and seasoned successful political pros, widely and well-endorsed, and is doing as fine as fine can be, pushing a "libertarian-ish," a "message….of limited government—smaller, more restrained government—and a push to follow the entire Constitution, not just parts of it that are popular with Republicans."

Antle's point above is doubtless on the mind of all the political pros who don't want Rand Paul to just ruin everything with wild libertarianism. When I wrote a New York Times op-ed back in April calling for a more libertarian Rand Paul, the 750 word limit didn't give a lot of time to tease out the complications and implications of that.

But one of the points apparently unclear to some critics is it was not written from the perspective of a campaign manager adviser, telling Paul what he needed to do to win.

It was written from the perspective of a movement libertarian, wanting to see an effective national champion for libertarian ideas, for explicitly libertarian, not social conservative, reasons. It was meant to explain to an NYT audience why every libertarian was not 1,000 percent on board with Paul. (For example, even calling for defunding of Planned Parenthood and sanctuary cities, while great news for libertarians who want to see nearly everything defunded, isn't necessarily being a sharply libertarian candidate.)

Everyone can and will make spitball guesses as to why Paul's poll numbers have fallen, but as near as I've seen we have no proof; no one is asking why a given polled person is or isn't liking Paul, much less identifying people who used to like Paul and have stopped doing so.

There is a case to be made that in a field of people talking tax and budget cuts and nodding to social conservative values, Paul needs to be more libertarian to stand out. It is also possible that seeming insufficiently bellicose on the question of Iran is losing him some support, while seeming insufficiently pacific on the same is losing him different support.

I don't know, neither do you, though its possible the campaign is doing some more deep-focus polling that gives them knowledge we don't have.

But whether Paul needs to be more or less libertarian to shine in the GOP primaries isn't necessarily the most important question to libertarians, whose support is generally only available for those who actually advocate libertarian actions and principles across the board.

Tomorrow it might be a different world for Rand Paul, depending on tonight's debate. But it doesn't have to be for his campaign to have viability; the debate isn't necessary make or break.

But unlike the other candidates, Rand Paul's campaign can have viability and value for America's future by building a strong political and ideological movement that understands the important of libertarian ideas even if Paul does not become the nominee in 2016. He's less explicitly running a libertarian educational campaign than his father did, and I wish he would, because I want Americans to be exposed to libertarian ideas in a pure and vivid form in the one place most of them ever think about politics: national political campaigns.

But libertarians shouldn't be so sure in a country that by no means understands and embraces the value of free minds and free markets that being more libertarian is what he needs to do to win.

And Paul partisans shouldn't be so sure that libertarians should and must cheer a Paul who does well without standing up intelligently and consistently for libertarian values and policies. 

A president in our constitutional structure can't magically achieve a libertarian nation on his own, and politicians tend to be lagging indicators of public values. That's why libertarians can't help but be frustrated even more with candidates who we think do get libertarian principles on a deep level but don't fight for them proudly and loudly and always.

I can understand the perspective of a Paulite political type who thinks any libertarian who isn't 1,000 percent for voting for and getting others to vote for Rand Paul is betraying the libertarian revolution. Such folk, to the politico, are potentially sacrificing the future of their country to their own self-satisfied sense of moral seriousness and hardcore consistency, a consistency perhaps impossible in a democracy where politicians win through majority vote.

Such politicos have to understand they are dealing with an audience who question the sincerity and efficacy of any politician, who recognize the necessary limits of presidential power, and who are trying to carry forward into the future a set of ideas about government that could be harmed rather than helped by becoming subsumed in any one flawed national politician. That is, a libertarian is almost always going to critique a politician.

But many libertarians, as alone in the political wilderness as they always are, can also be quite charmed by any politician who seems to get them and their concerns. It's a dance Paul will have to struggle through for the next year, if he sees any value in a libertarian constituency at all. As frustrating as libertarian criticism can be, it does show that they recognize that in Rand Paul is a candidate who is at least capable of understanding their concerns and articulating their worldview.