Wash Post: "The Libertarian Moment is Over, Or is It?"

A year ago, Rand Paul was ascendant. Now, not so much. Is libertarianism dying on the GOP vine?


Former Reason staffer David Weigel, now at the Washington Post, looks at Rand Paul's sagging fortunes in the run for the Republican presidential nomination and writes

One year ago, in a flag-planting cover story for the New York Times magazine, Robert Draper asked whether a "libertarian moment" had come at last. "Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it," wrote Draper. The memorable art for the story was a fuzzed-out image of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), patterned after a hardcore show flyer, with a date of 11/8/16. Election Day.

The image made sense at the time; increasingly, it looks like a nostalgia piece. This August has tagged Rand Paul's presidential bid as officially "embattled." Single digit support in primary states; indictments for the two heads of his super PAC; a poorly-reviewed run at the first debate….

No one argues with this: The Paul campaign's struggle has quieted down the "libertarian moment" talk. The dream of Paul as a "frontrunner" in waiting was based on a few polls that showed his support in the high teens. For a brief time, it made sense for libertarians to hitch their wagons to the story of a thriving national politician. That's happening less now.

There's no question that Rand Paul's presidential campaign has hit a soft patch. He got the least amount of air time in the first GOP debate and his numbers have been slipping for a long time. I've been critical of some of his positions over the past few months but Weigel quotes me this way:

"It's a mistake to conflate Rand Paul's electoral success with that of the libertarian moment," said Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com. (Disclosure: I worked for Reason from 2006 to 2008.) "Rand Paul's high visibility is better understood as a consequence of the libertarian moment than its cause. There's a reason why he's been at his most electrifying and popular precisely when he is at his most libertarian: calling out the surveillance state, for instance, and leading the charge against reckless interventions in Syria and Libya."

Libertarians such as Lawson Bader, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and David Boaz, vice president of The Cato Institute, note that on fronts such as gay marriage, pot legalization, gun rights, criminal justice reform, general distrust of government, and more, things are going in the libertarian direction.

Full Weigel/Post piece here.

More important, broad indicators that Americans prefer social tolerance and fiscal responsibility continue to grow:

According to a composite index of libertarian views on social and economic issues developed by pollsters at CNN, something clearly is afoot. The pollsters look at whether people believe that government is trying to do too many things individuals should be doing and whether or not people think government should enforce a particular set of morals. In 1992, the index of libertarian belief stood at 92 points. It's now at 113 points. Virtually all surveys show trends of people thinking the government is doing too much, is incompetent or untrustworthy, or represents a larger threat to the future than big labor or big business.

As Matt Welch and I argued in The Declaration of Independents, politics is and always will be a "crippled, lagging indicator" of where the country is trendng.

Which isn't to say that Rand Paul doesn't need to goose his campaign if he wants to win the GOP nomination.

To that end, I also tell Weigel that his father Ron's endorsement is a help, especially if it pushes Rand to go full beast-mode libertarian. If the Kentucy senator becomes the only Republican who unapologetically embraces fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, he might not win the 2016 nomination, but he'll become the spokesman for exactly where the country is headed, whether most Republicans or Democrats don't figure that out until long after it's happened. That's the long game and the one that is most important.

Americans want a president who not only uses Uber but supports the economic policies that help produce it; who not only eats Mexican food but, you know, actually can stand living with Mexicans; that not only preaches religious freedom and individual rights but extends them to gays and lesbians; and who understands that having a Department of Defense doesn't mean you should be starting or continuing wars all over the planet.

Like it or not (and what's not to like?), that's the America we'll all be living in soon enough. Weigel argues that Paul's campaign is "going to be the lens through which everyone else tracks the movement's success." He's probably right about that, but that doesn't mean things aren't still moving in the right direction whether Paul moves into the White House in 2016 or is growing his presence in the Senate instead.