The Rand Paul postmortems have been coming fast and furious. And, depending on where you stand in relation to libertarianism, they've been either gloatsome or sad.
I put myself in the latter category. For all his feints away from the libertarian-ish positions that had made him not just "the most interesting man in politics" (as Time put it a while ago) but the leader among Republican presidential hopefuls (a year ago), he was the only candidate in either major party who was actually bringing new ideas and combinations to the table. The presidential race will be far less interesting and, more importat, far less substantive, without him.
So why'd he fail to catch fire? In a new Daily Beast column, I suggest that Donald Trump is the primary reason:
Trump didn't just usher in a new tone more bracing than Aqua Velva on an open cut—he called Mexicans rapists mere minutes into his official campaign announcement, for instance, and dubbed competitors "weak" and "low-energy" to their faces—but a different set of concerns, too. Despite no indications that even Republicans were overly concerned with these things, the 2016 election suddenly was all about immigration and killing terrorists' families. The economy, government spending, and serious foreign policy discussions were pushed to the background.
I'd add also that Paul never fully articulated a principled response to the rise of ISIS and the beheading of two American freelance journalists in late summer 2014. Those killings changed U.S. public attitudes toward re-engaging in the Middle East and rather than offer a response consistent with his generally smart (and popular) foreign policy prescriptions, Paul went mini-hawk on Syria and the Middle East. One of the knocks against non-interventionism or libertarian realism is that it's not up to the task of protecting American interests in a world gone mad. I don't think that's at all true. In fact, it's more important than ever to argue that interventionism, which is articulated by all the other GOP candidates and Hillary Clinton, is at the core of our sinking global standing. In this arena, Paul may have lost but it's also true his critique has left a lasting mark on discussions of war: None of the most-likely-to-succeed candidates are calling for boots on the ground, or at least not openly. We've experienced total foreign pollcy failure on the part of Republicans and Democrats so far in the 21st century—failures that have come at enormous cost to life and liberty (not to mention money and other resources). It's a shame that Paul wasn't able to more forcefully change the conversation.
So where will Paul's GOP supporters go now? My preliminary thoughts:
Trump has no realistic shot at picking up Paul's votes, given his lack of interest in or adherence to any set of unifying principles. Whatever happens, Rubio has already revealed himself as an apple-polisher, more eager to sit behind the desk than get the job done. His tax plan is the worst sort of social engineering via the tax code and he's easily the most unreconstructed interventionist among the top GOP candidates.
That leaves Ted Cruz, who is nobody's idea of a libertarian but who at least makes head fakes toward some limits on political power. Corie W. Stephens of Rare notes that Cruz has already apparently picked up one major Paul backer less than a day after the senator's withdrawal….
Or it might be that much of Paul's support simply goes into hibernation, waiting not just for one more candidate who pats them on the head and whispers stray Ludwig von Mises quotes, but actually lays out exactly how she is going to create a new operating system for a country that is both financially and ideologically broke.
What do you think, folks?