Did Rand Paul Get His Libertarian Groove Back?

The debate was neither a triumph nor a disaster for Paul.


Rand Paul
Fox News

Going into the first Republican debate, expectations were especially high for Sen. Rand Paul, whose campaign has apparently seen better days. The debate was an opportunity for Paul to begin righting the ship by reassuring his libertarian flock that he is indeed one of them while stealing back the spotlight from Donald Trump.

Did Paul succeed? Depends who you ask.

I thought he at least partly succeeded. As I wrote earlier:

Sen. Rand Paul might have reclaimed some of his lost libertarian luster during a heated exchange with Chris Christie over the constitutionality of the NSA's phone records collection program. …

Christie is a big government bully who is quick to play the 9/11 card—and he's not alone on the stage in that regard. Paul's best way to distinguish himself from the rest of the field is to shore up his credentials as a defender of the liberties of all Americans, and taking on Christie was an excellent way to do that. It's important to remember that plenty of Republican primary voters—and indeed, plenty of Americans, period—are extremely uncomfortable ceding unchecked surveillance powers to the federal government.

The Washington Examiner's W. James Antle III seemed to agree with me in a column that proclaimed "Rand Paul lives":

It wasn't the Giuliani moment some were hoping for, but it was a glimpse of how Rand Paul might handle his more hawkish rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. …

Nowhere did he land a knockout punch and libertarians looking for him to channel his father still had ample grounds for complaint. Even as he defended diplomacy with Iran, he reiterated his opposition to the deal actually on the table, which Ron Paul supports. The Kentucky senator basically triangulated between Republicans who want to rip up the agreement on day one and the Obama administration. …

We won't see a reappearance of those "Rand Paul is the GOP front-runner" stories anytime soon. But perhaps it will be easier for Paul to get back to libertarian basics with less to lose.

Commentators outside the libertarian camp were less impressed with Paul's performance, however. Karl Rove said Paul "overreached" by being needlessly aggressive with Trump. The Morning Joe panel largely panned Paul's performance, and Frank Luntz's focus group participants didn't list the senator among the candidates who had wowed them.

It should be noted that Paul wasn't really given much of an opportunity to play to his strengths. Moderators asked only one question about police brutality and directed it to Gov. Scott Walker. It's easier to imagine Paul standing out a bit more if he is ever able to field questions about criminal justice reform and general electability. No Republican candidate can promise to compete for young voters and minority voters as plausibly as Paul can.