So Rand Paul managed to qualify—barely—for the grownup's table at tonight's Republican presidential-candidate debate. That's better than getting kicked down to the undercard, of course, like Mike Huckabee, but it still raises questions, not just for Kentucky senator but for the libertarian movement with which he's associated.
As his campaign wheezes along, critics of libertarianism on both the right and the left are exulting in Paul's weak (or as Donald Trump might say it: weak!) showing and proclaiming not just that he's done, but so is libertarianism's impact on contemporary America. "The False Rise and Fall of Rand Paul," reads the headline of an October 20 Politico feature, "He was supposed to embody a new libertarian moment. But there never was one."
I think it's a monumental–and intentional–mistake to conflate Paul's electoral fortunes with the persistence of what in 2008 Matt Welch and I dubbed "the Libertarian Moment," or "comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives." The Libertarian Moment already has had an effect on politics (think pot legalization, gay marriage, work-licensing reform), but it's a profoundly pre-political dynamic that hardly hinges on whether a particular candidate (or party) goes big or goes home. Trying to pin the failure of a broad-based cultural and commercial shift by tying it to one person is best understood as a defense mechanism by folks deeply invested in perpetuating the played-out politics of left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative. Critics don't want to have to deal with the tectonic shifts taking place in American culture any more than Hillary Clinton wants to have to deal with Uber or any GOP presidential candidate wants to deal with the overwhelming sentiment favoring some sort of pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Which isn't to scant the fizzle that is the Paul campaign. Just last February, Paul won his third straight presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and a year ago Time made him its cover boy, calling him "The Most Interesting Man in Politics." For most of his time in the Senate, he's pulled favorable press not just from Reason and other libertarian-friendly outlets but The New York Times, MSNBC, the ACLU, and even Code Pink for his outspoken opposition against military intervention in Syria and Libya, President Obama's kill list, and bulk collection of phone metadata by the NSA. It's helped, too, that he's floated ideas about legalizing pot and letting the states decide gay marriage. Hell, he even occasionally had good things to say about immigrants, which set him apart. His willingness to engage minority audiences that most Republicans ignore (except when vilifying them) earned him props even or especially from critics who found his stances in favor of the Second Amendment, pro-life legislation, and massively reduced federal spending puzzling or downright disturbing. But still it seemed that—finally!–here was a different type of politician, one who wasn't just a central-casting cranky conservative in the way Republicans always seem to be!
That all seems like ancient history now. Paul's popularity has flatlined in the low single digits among likely Republican primary voters. What happened? Obviously, the big story in this presidential cycle is the emergence of Donald Trump as something more potent than fodder for late-night TV. What was expected to be a brief and embarassing flash in the pan has become a campaign that has dominated the political news cycle for the past six months or more. Yet two of Paul's Senate colleagues, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have also climbed in the polls in a way that Paul has not, so it's not just Trump sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
I'd argue that, for starters, the GOP electorate en masse is clearly not ready to channel anything resembling hardcore libertarianism. You can see that simply by the hasty retreat the party made on its pledge to defund the Export-Import Bank. When Kevin McCarthy became the new Republican majority leader in 2014, he said his first order of business was killing the bank, which provides loan guarantees and more to foreign purchasers of U.S. goods produced by Boeing, General Electric, and other barely-getting-by corporate behemoths. Yes, Ex-Im's charter lapsed briefly for the first time since it was founded in the Depression, but it's back to cronyism as usual.
Then there are questions about defense spending and overseas intervention. A dozen years into the "War on Terror" and in the wake of two major failed wars, even Republicans were starting to come around to the view that constantly increasing defense spending was not going to make us safer or wealthier. Clearly, the fact that Rand Paul was the only candidate of either party who was clearly saying that was one of the reasons he stood out and was "unusual" in a good way. But public opinion shifted in summer 2014 from a majority of Americans agreeing we do "too much" to help solve world problems to a doubling of the percentage who think do "too little." Part of that was driven by the rise of ISIS, especially after the videotaped beheading of a freelance American journalist in August 2014 followed by another in September.
Almost immediately after those events, Paul started talking about getting involved in Iraq and Syria to take on ISIS in some limited way, which disheartened libertarians without convincing traditional Republicans that he too was really hawkish enough to be his party's standard-bearer. On a series of things, he kept coming across like the sixth or seventh most conservative GOP presidential wannabe rather than the only libertarian-leaning one. In the wake of the Chattanooga shooting he called for exactly the sort of profiling program that he had earlier branded as unwarranted. He called for increasing defense spending but said the move was different than what Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio were doing because he called for spending cuts elsewhere. He denounced "Sanctuary Cities" just like all the other Republicans, opposed the Iran deal, called for an end to refugees from Syria and a bunch of other countries. All in all, he started sounding more and more like everyone else on the GOP stage and less and less like a breath of fresh air.
As longtime Paul hater David Frum wrote when the Iran deal was in the news, "Paul will either find himself isolated with the old Ron Paul constituency — or he'll have to find some nimble way to jump to the 'anti' side of the Iran deal… If he opts for the latter approach, however, he becomes just another Republican voice among many competing to voice their opposition, and one less powerful and credible than, for example, Ted Cruz will be."
There's a lot of truth to that analysis and things have basically played out according to the second script. But it didn't have to be that way. The smarter move for Paul would have been to stick to his non-interventionist guns in the wake of ISIS's attacks on American freelancers in the Middle East and all the rest. National hysteria aside, the idea that such acts, however disturbing and barbaric, should be enough to plunge the United States back into a part of the world we'd just left after a decade of failed occupation is ridiculous. Especially a completely unclear set of U.S. goals, exit strategies, you name it. The same goes with the Iran deal, which is far from perfect, but is also not the appeasement ploy that hawks insist, either. But Paul didn't articulate why a non-interventionist foreign policy still made sense, or attempt to allay American anxieties and fears about terrorism here and abroad. Instead, he moved with the herd of more hawkish Republicans and with less believability.
It's possible that Paul will show some life in tonight's debate. After all, all eyes are on Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as "realistic" heirs to Donald Trump's lead, which no one quite believes can really last. Virtually all of Paul's strongest moments in the debates have come when he's been at his most libertarian, such as back in September when he championed drug policy and criminal justice reforms. Whether or not the GOP writ large is ready for a libertarian candidate, it's his "libertarianish" sensibility that brought him first to the Senate and then to the top of polls less than a year ago. He needs to be selling that constantly and consistently, even if it means that he's not going to be the nominee this go-around or maybe ever. He was more right than he seems to belive now when he called his party "stale and moss-covered" back in 2013. He needs to bring his party along on that rather than go along with his party.
So what about the rest of the country? Assuming nothing changes for Paul's popularity in the presidential campaign? Does that mean that "the new libertarian moment" he was supposed to "embody" never existed?
Hardly. There is no question that the country is in the grip of a war hysteria and that's never been good for libertarianism generally. Republicans and Democrats alike are talking about bombing more, putting more boots on the ground, battening down the hatches, you name it. The only difference is in degree, not kind. Perhaps for different reasons, but Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders agree nonetheless that we need to stop the Mexicans from advancing north. Hillary Clinton has a record more hawkish than many of the Republican candidates. Unlike Ted Cruz, she's actually served in the president's cabinet when he was "carpet-bombing" foreign countries (it never quite works out as planned, does it?).
Yet the effect of ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Paris attacks and the horrific violence of San Bernardino will not chill Americans' skepticism toward government or undermine belief in "free minds and free markets" for very long. Indeed, they have not even done so in the current moment. Even as terrorism has risen to the top of our national fear list, a record-low percentage of Americans have confidence the government can keep them safe from terrorism. Both parties reveal themselves to be shallowly partisan in the face of tragedies. Democrats want to increase gun control, Republicans want to increase border control. Each, in other words, is using current events to push for goals that have nothing to do with terrorism (and each, in its way, is ready to toss due process to the devil if it means they can achieve their goals).
Outside of national-security issues, nobody is turning away from an embrace of marriage equality or pot legalization (which will be on the ballot in a dozen or more states next November). Nobody is pretending that the dismantling of the nation's failed and expensive traditional public school system via charters, vouchers, and other forms of choice is going to be reversed any time soon. For all the professional Republican contempt for illegal immigrants, two-thirds of Americans (and half of all Republicans!) favor a path to legal status for them. The only two people in America who have utter contempt for Uber and the sharing economy are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
This is still the Libertarian Moment and people are still demanding that their personal lives, their work lives, and their cultural lives become more fluid, dynamic, and individualized. We recognize that, as Matt Welch and I wrote in The Declaration of Independents, that politics is a lagging indicator of change in America and politics will be the last sector of our lives to be revolutionized by the same forces that have made our lives so much better.
But it's coming. Millennials are now the largest generation in these United States and their electoral clout will only grow as baby boomers start dying off. Growing up in a time of failed wars and an economy made sluggish by an endless procession of political interventions, millennials have understandably soured on government fixes and certainly government surveillace of their lives. The latest poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics finds that hey are not doctrinaire libertarians by any measure, but even as they believe government should play a role in helping the poorest and weakest among us, they're not so naive as to expect it to help them very much. Fully 25 percent of millennials call themselves independent while only 9 percent call themselves "strong" Republicans and 17 percent call themselves "strong" Democrats.
More important, fully 50 percent agree with the old Reagan line that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." Only 16 percent disagree. They overwhelmingly believe that voluntary community action and business will improve their quality of life more than government action. They are making the world they want to live in, and it's one that will rely less and less on the government to enforce a specific set of moral values, a single identity for what it means to be American, or a particular mandate for this or that way to do business.
Rand Paul might yet still be the change agent for libertarianism in partisan politics. His faltering presidential campaign doesn't erase the energy and enthusiasm he's ginned up since coming to Washington only a few years ago. But whether he's the person who does that—much less whether he wins the 2016 GOP presidential nod—is less important than most people understand.