Boston journalist Garrett Quinn, a sometime contributor to Reason, has a harsh, impressionistic Daily Beast piece out describing Rand Paul's presidential campaign in New England in the most desultory of terms. "It's hard to tell if he even cares," reads part of the subhed. "Rand Paul's campaign is not dead but he sure is acting like it," goes the first paragraph. Other adjectives that make an appearance in the report include "disappointing," "atrocious," "embarrassing," and "awkward."
I don't know whether the depiction is fair, or whether every neutral gesture just looks miserable through the lens of covering a campaign that has undershot even modest expectations while the gleeful buzzards circle ever-lower overhead. But I trust content from Garrett Quinn, and am familiar enough with the candidate's transparent-for-a-politician emotions to recognize that some off-putting mopeyness and exhaustion have crept in around the edges. To which I would advise the only libertarianish major-party candidate left in the 2016 campaign: Snap out of it!
Yes, the physical and psychological demands of a presidential campaign are grueling, especially if (unlike Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz) you are still taking your Senate job seriously enough to show up for work. So here's a thought: Campaign on that. I know, I know, nobody chooses a president based on attendance records. But there's a bright and important line between Rand Paul-style anti-establishmentarianism and the Ted Cruz variety, and it's even more comportmental than it is ideological. Cruz is forever seeking emotional partisan gestures with zero chance of procedural success so that he can blame Washington (especially the GOP establishment) for "failure theater" (he is nothing if not self-aware) and portray himself as a martyr when the stunt inevitably fails. Paul's best moments, in contrast, are designed at minimum to change public opinion, and at best to change the law. Paul is trying to push through wide-ranging, long-overdue criminal justice reform; Cruz is trying to coach the House of Representatives on how to become more like Ted Cruz.
With the important buyer-beware caveat that the following is advice from a non-partisan, small-l libertarian with zero record of successfully electing anybody, here are four other recommendations for the Rand Paul campaign:
2) Act like you know you're probably going to lose, rather than that you're desperate for a formula that can win.
Q: When did John McCain locate his mojo during his two comparatively successful runs at the GOP nomination?
A: After he had already been pronounced dead by the pundit class.
Part of that was McCain's own inherent back-against-the-wall feistiness, a trait that has gotten him out of scraps from Annapolis to Vietnam to Washington. But especially in the hopelessly underdog 2000 campaign against establishment frontrunner George W. Bush, the prospect of having no real chance was liberating for McCain, allowing him the latitude to blurt out impolitic truths as he saw them, ramble on unguardedly (and refreshingly) in the presence of reporters, and exhibit some tangible fun in tilting at windmills. (He would portray the Bush campaign as the Death Star, and so forth.)
The analogies aren't close to being exact (what with there being 14 GOP candidates and all), but Rand Paul knows what it's like to take on the entire Republican establishment and win, and he is also very capable of what passes in high-level politics for intelligent fun. Since the Republican Party has a long history of having its eventual presidential nominees go through one round of failure before offering the job, Paul could treat this campaign more like a mulligan than a now-or-never Hail Mary pass, and use the available remaining space cheerfully delivering hard truths that Republicans don't have the courage to face. Being hopelessly outnumbered on principles dear to your heart should be an invigorating challenge, not a grim duty.
3) Come at the king, on explicitly Tea Party/limited government grounds.
Two years ago, when both Rand Paul and Chris Christie were considered to be top-tier candidates (fun fact: both led national polls as recently as the summer of 2014), Christie tried to knock Paul's block off with a crack about "dangerous" libertarianism, to which the Kentucky senator effectively counterpunched by calling the New Jersey a "gimme, gimme, gimme" moocher from the federal government on Hurricane Sandy.
Christie does not matter in this campaign anymore (he has received 1 percent support in the four out of the past eight national polls), but Donald Trump certainly does. It is not sufficient to point out that Trump is truly awful on eminent domain; the fact is, he's the Bernie Sanders of the Republican Party, promising to expand rather than reform the entitlement blob that's gobbling up all federal spending, and magically trade-war our way to prosperity. His combination of massive tax cuts, entitlement lock-boxes, and mercantilism would arguably speed the federal government to bankruptcy faster than any other presidential candidate.
Was the Tea Party about cutting government overreach, or was it about venting frustration about Mexicans and the Chinese? As one of the Tea Party's great success stories, Rand Paul is a unique position to argue forcibly for the latter former, and portray Trump as the dangerously big-government ideologue that he is.
4) Get even more personal on the drug war.
The personalized debate exchange on drug policy between Paul, Christie, and Jeb Bush last month was great, but it should only be the beginning. Next week's GOP debate is in Boulder, Colorado, fer chrissakes, and just about every candidate not named Paul on that stage has blood on his hands when it comes to the carceral state.
Republicans—and Democrats, for that matter—should be confronted early and often that their bluster, prejudice, and policy mistakes have created a vicious black market, ensnared millions of citizens into the criminal justice system, set back the cause of medical research, and degraded the constitutional rights of every American, all in the name of attempting to control what individuals choose to put in their bodies. Americans are so far out ahead of politicians on this issue that they've even lapped Rand Paul (speaking of which, there's an easy way for the senator to get back out front)…. The rest of the field should be put on their heels for their role in one of the biggest domestic policy failures in Amercian history.
5) Puncture the Great Man Theory of foreign policy.
Donald Trump and Ben Carson think that despite their inexperience and evident ignorance they can fix America's foreign policy by choosing the right Top Men. This is childish fantasia, but they are leading the field, so it's worth labeling it as such…
…especially when you pivot to an arguably even worse fantasia—that the kind of foreign policy fluency expressed by Marco Rubio, or the we-must-restore-this-exact-number-of-battleships memorization displayed by Carly Fiorina, somehow absolves them and similar hawks for being wrong over and over again about the wisdom of throwing around American might in faraway places. In their opposition to the sitting president, these would-be omniscient hawks resemble the wise liberal internationalists of the Democratic Party circa 2007-08, who, too, thought they could magically fix foreign policy with the right Top Men and an allegedly more listen-y approach to the world.
Here's the flaw in all those ideas: The world stubbornly refuses to be fixed. And America stubbornly refuses to admit that its exertions aren't decisive even if we decide really hard.
A large part of the "conservative realism" Paul seeks to promote should focus like a laser beam on the literal meaning of that second word. In a world where even comparative anti-interventionists like Bernie Sanders support keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until whenever-the-hell, America needs desperately to face some unhappy facts, like: That city Americans died for now belongs to the bad guys. Billions spent and thousands killed aren't enough to sustain governments of largely fictitious polities. You-broke-it-you-own-it is a recipe for mission creep and inevitable failure; also, breaking it in the first place is often a terrible idea.
So, will any of the themes and postures presented on this list be winning electoral strategies for Rand Paul or anyone else? Quite possibly not! But they have the benefit of fitting squarely with Paul's own deeply held beliefs, and so require little in the way of a new sales pitch aside from him being comfortable with knowing that GOP primary voters this time around might not be maximally receptive. Leave the sugar out, give it to us straight, and see what happens. If nothing else we'll have a better discussion on some life-and-death issues.
Rand Paul isn't and was never going to be his father, nor were his father's supporters ever going to support him in the same way. But one liberating facet about both the elder Paul's and Bernie Sanders's campaigns was that they seem to say exactly what they believe, to hell with the consequences. Rand has always played a different game, more on the inside, more sensitive to how much libertarianism his broader audiences were ready to accept. But if he relaxes the self-imposed pressure to make his core beliefs go down smoothly, and instead lets it rip in a way that is authentic to his own passions, he might find himself more attractive to voters who think "Well, I don't agree with all or even most of what candidate X says, but at least he/she authentically believes it!"
In a campaign that has so far defied most predictions, it is the size of that latter, authenticity-seeking bloc which may be the biggest surprise of all. Those voters are gettable, but not through hedging—or moping.