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My thoughts on Rand Paul's floundering campaign

For the most part, I avoided making specific predictions about the future of right-wing politics in America in the new book. I offered some speculation in White Voters about the 2014 election that proved way off, and I am now committed to avoiding that mistake again. I did offer a couple of cautious predictions in Right-Wing Critics, and one of them already looks pretty shaky.

My first prediction was that the traditional conservative media was losing its grip on the American right. I offered some reasons why I did not think it would be able to maintain its status as the gatekeepers of acceptable thought indefinitely. On this end, I think my arguments look pretty good. Trump’s continued relevance in the GOP primary seems to confirm that National Review, George Will, and the various other voices of mainstream conservatism are increasingly irrelevant. I may still be proven wrong, but for now I think my argument looks pretty sound. I will have more to say about this at a later date.

My other thought was that, if conservatism as it has been understood for the last five decades begins to weaken as a force in American life, mainstream-ish libertarians might be some of the biggest beneficiaries. While I did not say I predicted him to win, it is pretty clear in the text that I was bearish about Rand Paul (I wrote most of the book in mid-2014).

While much can happen between now and January, it looks like Rand Paul has virtually zero chance to even make a respectable showing in the primaries. He may actually perform worse than his father. It is perhaps even more interesting that Rand Paul has had little substantive impact on the direction of the debates within the GOP. Plenty of voices have offered speculation about what went wrong, and my own ideas are probably not particularly novel. That said, here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, and this scarcely needs to be said, Donald Trump threw off everyone’s campaign plan. In a smaller field, dominated by Bush, Rubio, and Walker, Paul would have been positioned to be the outsider, challenging conventional GOP wisdom. The arrival of others who claimed outsider status (Fiorina, Carson) was an additional problem.

Paul’s strategy of softening his libertarian stances, and even breaking with libertarian dogma on a number of issues considered non-negotiable to many libertarians, was supposed to build his credibility with mainstream conservative voters. This obviously failed, and as a result he lost many of the hardcore Ron Paul supporters in the process. Although he made some interesting remarks on foreign policy in the debates, Rand Paul’s lack of firm commitment to non-interventionism clearly bristles many libertarians.

On one of the issues where Rand Paul did choose to make a more libertarian stand, on criminal justice questions, he could not have foreseen what a polarizing issue this would become, and he finds himself on the wrong side of the issue in the eyes of many ordinary GOP voters. My social circle includes many people on both the mainstream right and the academic left. I can tell you that on Black Lives Matter, and the various issues surrounding that movement, there is presently zero chance of meaningful dialog and compromise between those competing camps. I am fairly confident that any momentum on the right for criminal justice reform has come to a halt. His middle-of-the-road position on questions of mass incarceration and the drug war may have been a wise strategy in the general election (or not, I don’t know), it is clearly not doing anything for him now.

Then there is the issue personality. Rand Paul is just not particularly charismatic. His father possessed a certain charm. He combined a generally likable personality with an admirable devotion to principles (I think one can admire his uncompromising nature even if one does not agree with his ideas). Rand does not come across as possessing either. Some of his campaign tactics were also rather baffling. What did he think he would accomplish when he took the chainsaw to the tax code? Is the tax code even a salient issue this year? Further, a stunt like that would have come off better if he had previously presented himself as more of a rugged, cowboy personality. As it was, Paul weilding a chainsaw reminded me of Dukakis in the tank.

As an aside, there has been much discussion about the scandalous behavior of Paul’s advisors, especially Jesse Benton, who was just re-indicted for a ridiculous scheme to buy an endorsement from someone who really did not matter. I actually do not think this is a big deal – though if Rand was doing better in the polls, perhaps his opponents would be making a bigger deal out of it. As far as I can tell, most of the people talking about this are libertarians who always hated Benton. I doubt many other Republicans are even aware of it.

So, if Rand Paul’s campaign ends with a whimper in early 2016, will I need to reevaluate my thoughts on the future of libertarianism? Possibly. However, my generally positive outlook on libertarians was not based exclusively on my early expectations for Paul. If we look at mainstream libertarians in context, they are still in a stronger position than most of the other movements I discuss in the book. They possess an impressive infrastructure of think tanks, student organizations, and even elected officials. No one else I considered could say the same. Further, whatever happens with Trump, his campaign is built entirely around himself, for better or for worse. His is not laying out a consistent and coherent ideology that is distinct from Buckley-style conservatism, and whatever movement he builds will not survive his own candidacy. He is not entirely dissimilar from Perot in this regard.

Maybe some other ideology on the right will see a huge windfall of support in the years ahead. Or maybe mainstream conservatism will prove more resilient than I anticipated. Or maybe we are on the verge of a new progressive consensus. I don’t have a crystal ball. However, if there is a race between alternative right-wing movements seeking to establish themselves as the most popular and powerful opponents of egalitarian liberalism, libertarians still have a head start.

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