As Rand Paul makes news this week for showing he's not a mere politician, but a man of medicine who can effectively bring eyesight to the blind on a humanitarian trip to Haiti, he still has a presidential campaign to run, and the polls are still not good and getting worse.
Admirers and former associates of Paul, both within and without the SuperPACs supporting him, still believe there's life left in the campaign—though it might require a libertarian boldness Paul has not, from their perspective, fully embodied. (I shared some of my own thoughts, still not settled, about whether a tougher libertarianism is just something libertarians want out of Paul, or something he must embody for electoral success.)
The first SuperPAC in the Rand Paul field, the one most closely associated with the Paul family machine, and the one that has so far raised the most money ($3.13 million, still at the bottom of the GOP candidate pack), is America's Liberty. Earlier this month, its two chief operatives were indicted on campaign finance reporting violation charges related to payoffs to Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson during the 2012 Ron Paul campaign.
That PAC is now run by John McCardell, another former Ron Paul staffer, who told Politico merely that "We have a long held plan to help Rand win and we are moving ahead. Nothing has changed."
Ed Crane, co-founder and retired longtime chieftain of the Cato Institute, runs the Paul-supporting PurplePAC. With his libertarian movement background, he sees the best chances for Paul lie in being more consistently libertarian, and he says others in the campaign's orbit are getting the same feeling. "The very fact that he was going after the NSA, skeptical of being the world's policeman, that made him unique," Crane says, and explains why he started off polling double digits.
Paul should have used the first GOP candidate debate, Crane says, and all his earned media, to hit home that he is "the candidate who is pro free market, anti-crony capitalism and is skeptical of the efficacy of the U.S. being the world's policemen, and is also concerned about civil liberties" unlike his opponents who all want "boots on the ground" in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Crane says that PurplePAC is not actively trying to raise money right now pending some possible additions to its command structure and seeking wider feedback on the best next steps, though he hopes they can eventually produce powerful social media work that "makes the case for Rand the way it should be made, get people thinking about free markets, concern for civil liberties, and skepticism about the military, that he's the only guy who stands for all that and express it in a clear and understandable way."
Matt Kibbe, formerly of FreedomWorks, is now working with a Paul SuperPAC called Concerned American Voters, focusing on get out the vote ground game in Iowa. He's trying to keep his eye on the prize through the chaos of bad polling and waves of media trying to bury the Paul campaign prematurely.
"Rand should stick to his strengths," Kibbe says, "one of which is ground game and the second of which is being the substantive, disruptive policy guy who has actually proposed radical tax reform, led on criminal justice reform and stands out from crowd on foreign policy and civil liberties, own the libertarian aspects of who he is."
If he can do that and "stays long enough to cull the herd and get focused," things could still work out fine when actual votes are cast, Kibbe believes.
Brian Darling, a former Paul senate staffer (Darling both wrote legislation for the senator and worked as his senior communication director, leaving for financial reasons early this year) who now works with the D.C. political consulting firm Third Dimension Strategies, sees a campaign suffering from the overly high early expectations created by the idea that he was "the most interesting man in politics" and an early front runner.
Like many who still hold out hope for Paul, Darling remembers past campaigns where what was happening at this point in the cycle had little to do with the eventual outcome. Darling, who had a long standard conservative movement background with the Heritage Foundation before working for Paul, also believes a Paul who can really hit home his unique positions on the Fourth Amendment can and should stand out positively among his fellow candidates, and that Paul's more libertarian foreign policy can and will appeal to a "people worn out with endless wars—Obama campaigned on a more restrained military but he's done anything but."
Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration Justice Department lawyer and former Ron Paul advisor who helped craft a Rand Paul lawsuit against the NSA, says he is in negotiations for a big role in PurplePAC moving forward. He hopes ultimately he can help them "articulate more forcefully what Rand ought to be doing and is not doing, giving him downfield blocking" for a more radically anti-intervention and pro-civil liberties campaign.
Despite being best known as a conservative movement legal scholar, Fein was most passionate talking about foreign policy: he stressed that "where Rand should be distinguishing himself head and shoulders above all the others is that we don't go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, you cannot take states whose political culture is in the Pleistocene age and make them democracies, and that defense should be focused on protecting the U.S. from attack, deterrence" and not "wasting money and lives needlessly. We do the equivalent of sticking a bayonet into a hornets' nest and wonder why the hornets come back."
Someone with as impeccable a history of being tough on America's enemies as President Eisenhower, Fein says, warned us about the military industrial complex who "pursue needless gratuitous wars for profit" and he thinks Paul can successfully call on that tradition in the GOP now.
That stuff sounds great to libertarians, but is there a national constituency for it now in a Trump-besotted GOP? Fein believes that Paul needs to stress his wider appeal to the independents without whose substantial support in key states no GOP candidate can win nationally.
All agree that Trump is stealing some of the "outsider" vibe that should have been Paul's to claim, despite being a sitting senator. Darling sees value in Trump's radically anti-establishment position against the notion of "political families akin to royalty" like the Clintons and Bushes. Trump also shows, Darling says, that many Republican voters are very eager to oppose current Republican political leadership, an area that Paul is also well equipped to grab, standing alone on issues like NSA spying.
Fein thinks Trump's brashness is something Paul might want to emulate, "don't be recessive, be dominant," don't be afraid to use adjectives–"you can reasonably describe our foreign policy as utter idiocy, costing trillions and killing needlessly, and it has to be said that way" not disguised under such "Georgetown seminar" terms as "'conservative realism.' Permanent war and limited government are antonyms" and Paul needs to sharply make that case.
"The upside to Trump," says Kibbe, "is that he demonstrates the complete distrust and disgust that voters have with the standard two party duopoly and that dynamic should be Rand's playing field. People are genuinely eager to throw everyone out, and if he's good enough Rand can turn that into a libertarian policy mandate."
Paul has frustrated some backers over his unwillingness to do some high profile appearances at events such as the RedState Gathering and the most recent gathering of the Koch brothers' political funding group Freedom Partners. Kibbe thinks the public reason Paul gives is the real one: that he sees the opportunity costs of schmoozing with conservative movement solons and funders as too high when he could be doing retail campaigning in important early states.
Crane, though, detects a candidate who "comes across that he's not happy as a candidate and wishes he didn't have to go to these [events] but you can't ask people to work for you much less vote for you if not going to be enthusiastic" about the process. "He's not a backslapper, not a go get 'em guy." Crane also complains that past attempts, pre-PAC, to connect the Paul campaign to big-money libertarians he knows were never effectively followed up by the official campaign.
All see no reason to believe the Paul campaign is over; all agreed aspects of both the campaign and polling and fundraising were frustrating, especially considering the vital stakes for libertarian ideas at stake. Darling, who worked for Paul, is sure that Paul is "not the kind of guy to walk away from a fight. He stood up at the debates nose to nose with the two bullies, Christie and Trump, and anyone who thinks he will pull out, no way, they don't know the guy. He's not a quitter."