I’m a big fan of Ron Paul. I supported him in 2008 and 2012. For this reason, I really tried to like Rand Paul, but he makes it hard. I still have some residual sympathy for Rand, so I really want to help him out even though I won’t be voting for him. Once he drops out, I plan to do a post-mortem on his campaign, because I really think Rand and his supporters need to hear some hard truths from someone associated with the “liberty movement” who isn’t one of the “libertarian cool kids” This is not that post-mortem, but consider it a preview.
Since Rand has slipped in the polls, he seems to have decided that he should take on the role of conservative orthodoxy enforcer. I don’t know if he was advised to do this or if he took on the role himself, but it is a role he is very ill suited for, and it isn’t going to help him.
First of all, the role of orthodoxy enforcer is best suited for an ideological or message candidate who actually isn’t in it to win it. This is a role Rand could have taken. It is the role, in my opinion, that he should have taken. He could have run as the slightly less dogmatic version of his father, with the point of carrying on the banner, especially on foreign policy, and keeping the movement together and energized. But Rand, likely bolstered by early poll numbers and some flattering press, deliberately chose not to run that type of campaign, so now the conservative orthodoxy enforcer role seems desperate and contrived.
Second, the role of conservative orthodoxy enforcer might also be suited for someone with a plausible shot at the nomination (meaning not just a message candidate), but who more clearly represents the more conservative by degree niche, which in this race would be Ted Cruz. One problem with Rand acting as conservative orthodoxy enforcer is that he is himself viewed with suspicion by many conservatives. Don’t get me wrong, on the issues such as foreign policy and government surveillance where Rand might be viewed suspiciously, I side with Rand rather than most of the more conservative by degree crowd, but that doesn’t change the fact that this suspicion makes Rand a poor messenger for the “Candidate X is not conservative enough” strategy. Note also, that Ted Cruz, who is better suited for the role, has very wisely chosen not to play the more conservative than thou card against Trump.
Third, early in the campaign my social network feed, peopled as it is with many liberty movement types, was filled with denunciations of Rand from more plumb line libertarians, excoriating him for deviating too much from libertarian orthodoxy and for tarnishing his father’s legacy. These were inevitably followed by more pragmatic supporters of Rand pleading with Rand’s critics to put aside their orthodoxy for the sake of political expediency. Regardless of what side you come down on in that debate, it is a bit clangy for a candidate who has been routinely criticized by some of his potential base for wandering off the ranch, to then turn around and question the orthodoxy of other candidates from a niche he doesn’t exactly fit in himself.
So why is Rand’s campaign struggling despite what many believed to be a promising start, such that now he feels the need to play conservative attack dog? I think the most obvious answer is the entrance into the race of Donald Trump. If you look at where the candidates started in the polls and where they are now, you could argue that only Jeb Bush has been hurt more by Trump than Rand. Trump has clearly sucked up most of the energy of the angry anti-Establishment crowd. Since Trump is far from a libertarian, many libertarian activists don’t want to believe this. They wonder how anyone who might have supported Rand could support Trump, but most voters, unlike political hobbyists like us who debate these things on the internet, are not precision ideologues. They may have certain issues they are invested in like guns or abortion, but they are not necessarily ideological box checkers. Much of what determines who they support is visceral and gestalt.
In 2011 Donald Trump gave a speech at CPAC where he made a comment critical of Ron Paul. He did not criticize Ron Paul preemptively, but responded to chants of Ron Paul’s name from his supporters in the audience. He said “Ron Paul cannot get elected, I’m sorry to tell you.” This little exchanged caused howls of outrage from Ron Paul’s admirably defensive supporters, but I advised at the time within my own Ron Paul circles that we should take it easy on Trump because there was potentially a lot of overlap between the respective bases. Again, this contention was greeted incredulously by many Paul supporters, but I was aware of Trump’s populist leanings and past flirtation with the Reform Party. Despite what many would like to believe, not all of Ron Paul’s supporters were libertarians or even Constitutionalists. Many were populist anti-Establishment types who were simply “mad as Hell and not going to take it anymore,” and Ron Paul was the candidate that best communicated their discontent. I believe the direction of the campaign season so far vindicates my contention of overlapping bases.
So what should Rand Paul do instead of playing conservative attack dog? He simply needs to be himself. He needs to make the case for the policies he supports in a straightforward manner. Not everyone is going to agree with him, but voters do sense and respect authenticity. No number of appearances in a red checked flannel shirt was ever going to make voters believe Lamar Alexander was a man of the people rather than the Establishment pol that he was. Likewise, no amount of role playing by Rand is going to make him into a more authentic version of Ted Cruz. He is what he is, his daddy’s son who toned it down a bit to win a Senate seat.
Also, Rand needs to learn from the Donald Trump phenomenon, rather than flail at it. There is a real groundswell of angry, anti-Establishment, populist sentiment among the Republican electorate. There are ways for libertarians to tap into this without endorsing government economic activism. Denounce crony capitalism. Denounce corporate welfare. Denounce big money vote buying. Denounce Federal Reserve interest rate manipulation. Denounce phony “free” trade deals. That field is ripe for harvest, but petulant finger wagging at Trump and his supporters for ideological deviations is not going to win over many Republican primary voters.