Four days before Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race, I watched a frustrated reason subscriber ask Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.) to explain something about the World's Greatest Deliberative Body. Why, Bryan Elliott wanted to know, had a unified GOP Congress colluded with President Barack Obama in late 2015 to produce a last-minute omnibus spending package that put the country on pace to run up trillion-dollar annual budget deficits by 2022, three years earlier than the Congressional Budget Office had previously predicted? "What did you get in return for busting the sequester and putting us on that kind of deficit [trajectory]?"
Flake, who voted against both the December omnibus and the October two-year budget deal that removed the Budget Control Act caps on federal spending (colloquially known as "the sequester"), was harsh in his assessment of his own party's performance.
"If you want to know what keeps me up at night, more than anything—and there are plenty of threats out there," he said, "it's waking up some morning and having the markets already decided that we're not going to buy your debt any more, or we'll only buy it at a premium, and interest rates are going to have to go up. When that happens, then virtually all of our…non-defense discretionary spending goes just to service the debt. And then we are Japan."
Japan has now seen two "lost" decades of massive debt, sluggish growth, population decline, and social malaise. Opponents of the Bush-Obama bailouts and stimulus packages, including this magazine (see the cover of our July 2009 issue), have long warned that responding to a financial crisis with increased government spending produces an unsatisfactory economic recovery and a debt overhang that can go from dangerous to deadly overnight. The former prediction has long since come true, and the latter looks increasingly likely now that the Federal Reserve has finally let interest rates rise from zero.
So what can we do to avoid these unhappy outcomes? Flake's response should send chills down the spine of those who think voting Republican is an answer to their fiscally conservative dreams: "Some problems are easier with divided government." The senator explained further: "If you look over the past couple of decades, all of the serious budget agreements—Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the sequester, and others—have come when there has been divided government, where both parties have said, 'We'll share the risk and jump.'"
Federal spending during the Obama presidency looks like a barbell: heavy at the ends, comparatively skinny in the middle. The picture corresponds perfectly with control of Congress. Unified Democrats jacked spending by more than a half-trillion dollars in Obama's first year; a divided Capitol Hill kept things flat from 2011 to 2014; and now the Republicans have turned the spigot back on.
The policy results have been bad enough: Go to page 18 ("What Is Congress Hiding?") to read about some of the smuggled-in provisions antithetical to freedom and common sense. But the political ramifications might end up being worse. By removing the constant, headline-generating conflict between fiscal hawks and the pro-spending D.C. establishment, Republicans allowed the political media to turn their attention toward whatever presidential-race action was making the most noise. Strange as it may seem on first glance, GOP fiscal irresponsibility on Capitol Hill helped the biggest-government Republican in the presidential race while hurting the one candidate with a bona fide libertarian record.
"I think it's like Charlie Brown and Lucy," Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.) told me three weeks before Rand Paul quit the presidential race. "The voting population is so tired of…trying to kick the football, and it gets pulled away from them at the last second. They have sent some people here to Congress who said all the right things, they ran as Tea Party candidates, then they got up here and they voted for the omnibus bill, or voted for Speaker [John] Boehner on their first day after pledging they wouldn't vote for him. And so what they're looking for is somebody that's not going to be controlled when they get here."
"You know, I'm not voting for Donald Trump—I'm supporting Rand Paul," Massie continued. "But I understand the frustration that leads people to support him. I understand it, and Congress is fueling it."
Or as another Paul supporter in Congress, Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.), puts it (see "The Last Honest Man in Congress," page 32), "Americans at home want someone who's going to stick it to Washington, D.C., and [Trump] will certainly do that."
Primary responsibility for the failure of a political campaign always lies first in the candidate himself. Paul, who consistently polled in the double digits nationwide from 2014 to the first half of 2015, never recovered from Trump entering the campaign last June and changing the terms of anti-establishmentarianism.
Part of that was a noble failure: Paul continued pushing for real freedom-oriented change in the U.S. Senate, whereas his Tea Party comrade and presidential competitor Ted Cruz (R-Texas) actively alienated everyone in Washington and lobbed hyperbolic rhetorical bombs from the outside. (Cruz's canny political maneuvering unfortunately also included turning his back on criminal sentencing reforms he had previously championed.)
Some of Paul's wounds were also self-inflicted. In a season during which voters from both parties flocked to candidates perceived as authentic (and in particular, authentically anti-establishment), Paul's efforts to make himself look acceptable to libertarian-averse conservatives on issues like immigration and military interventionism felt off-puttingly forced. (It is also true that many fans of his father were never going to forgive the son for having legitimate differences of opinion, or for trying to mainstream libertarian ideas rather than staking out new philosophical ground and inviting people to come join.)
But the GOP-run Congress deserves some of the blame too, because it changed the political context in which Paul was attempting to operate. Instead of pushing for spending reforms by using the debt ceiling as leverage—the only brinksmanship tactic that has proven consistently popular with the public—the once-feisty Republican House just waved the federal debt limit away until 2017. Instead of respecting grassroots revulsion at such crony-capitalist goody dispensaries as the Export-Import Bank, Congress found ways to bring the corrupt beast back from the dead.
As Matt Kibbe, who used to run the pro-Tea Party group FreedomWorks and has spent this election cycle heading a Rand Paul–supporting political action committee, told me in January, there's "such disgust with the D.C. establishment that I think some Tea Partiers have just given up, and they view Donald Trump as a bull in a china shop—they love the fact that he's creating such fits with the GOP establishment."
So should Rand Paul fans (myself included) be despondent? Did the Tea Party and "constitutional conservatism" just turn out to be vessels for culture-war politics and executive-power-aggrandizing Great Man fantasies? Not so fast, says Kibbe.
"I think we are sometimes too critical of ourselves," he said. "You know, we're so frustrated with politics, and what we didn't accomplish over the last five years, it's important to recognize that what I call the Liberty Caucus in the Senate—and I would include Ted Cruz in there, and I would include other senators as well—that, historically is unprecedented. There were no Justin Amashes, there were no Thomas Massies, there were no Raul Labradors. And all of these guys grew up reading reason magazine. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm sure Ted Cruz was reading reason as well. And that's different."