Rand Paul’s campaign strategy worked brilliantly—for Ted Cruz. For Rand, it’s led to him dropping out before the first primary. Staunch libertarian supporters of his father’s two campaigns believe Rand should have run more like Ron. But it’s worth examining why he didn’t and why neither Paul has come close to the nomination.
Rand Paul’s team last year seemed to expect a three-way race with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, in which a candidate who could unite the right would win. To that end, before the campaign began Paul built ties to the Heritage Foundation—the bastion of movement conservatism—and aggressively courted evangelicals of the sort who ultimately delivered victory to Cruz in Iowa this week.
The Kentucky senator would not campaign, as his father did, as a libertarian insurgent. Instead, Rand would be the total package, the libertarian who was as passionate about Israel as any evangelical, who would restrict immigration just as the party’s grassroots demanded, and who would be a rock-solid Heritage conservative, albeit one for the 21st century. He would not be the candidate of any niche.
Against Bush and Rubio this might have been a winning strategy. But who needed Paul to put on this act when Ted Cruz can do it better? Cruz was a closer fit for the evangelicals, and though Cruz is hated by movement-conservative insiders, he was always better positioned to be an all-purpose right-winger than was Paul, with his libertarian legacy. The mainstream media buzz that made Rand Paul “the most interesting man in politics” didn’t help him with Republican voters, and while newsmakers remain fascinated with the idea of Rand as a new kind of Republican, they’ve found it more effective to cast Marco Rubio for that role simply on account of how he looks. To figure out why Paul is a new sort of Republican requires reading whole paragraphs; to see why Rubio is, just glance at a photo.
Several of the rationales for Rand’s failure have the merit of being true. His team can’t be blamed for overestimating Jeb Bush—everyone did, myself included. And Cruz has proved to be a more adept retail politician than his reputation inside the halls of power suggested he would be.
The rise of ISIS certainly undercut Paul’s foreign-policy appeal, while in domestic policy—unlike his father in 2008 and 2012, Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, or Bernie Sanders among Democrats today—Rand didn’t have an economic position distinct from rivals’. The Kentucky senator was unique in his commitment to civil liberties and reining in domestic surveillance, but those are hardly issues that drive Republicans to the polls. Rand might have snatched the media’s attention from Trump if he’d been the sole Republican (presently in office , that is) to support the Iran deal , and he would have energized more of his father’s base by being more outspokenly anti-interventionist. But how far would that have taken him?
There’s a perfectly good case to be made that this just wasn’t Rand Paul’s year and nothing his campaign did could have made much difference. Even his poor showing in Iowa (fifth) relative to his father’s performance in 2012 (third) has to be kept in perspective: in 2012 the evangelicals’ favorite, who was then Rick Santorum, took first place; the establishment’s favorite, Mitt Romney, took second in a virtual tie. In 2016, those Romney voters were always more likely to go for a Rubio than a Rand Paul, and the evangelicals were always be more apt to go for a Cruz. Even in the best-case scenario, without Donald Trump seizing the anti-establishment vote that went for Ron Paul in 2012, third place would have been about as good as Rand could have expected.
That Ben Carson actually beat Rand for fourth place only underscores the point: Iowa is a state in which the evangelical vote has muscle to spare, and a “libertarian-ish” Republican named Paul is never going to overcome the religious right there. Just because caucuses have smaller turnout than primaries does not mean the proportion of libertarian-ish voters is going to be any more favorable.
Had Rand Paul run another Ron Paul campaign, he might have done better—but not well enough. Campaigns fueled by insurgent enthusiasm have a lousy track-record against even establishment opposition as underwhelming as Bob Dole and Mitt Romney. What would make an insurgency this year—or in 2020, for that matter—any different?
As the Trump phenomenon has shown, there are many more anti-establishment voters than there are libertarian voters. But even anti-establishment voters—perhaps 30 percent of the GOP—are not enough to take the nomination. If Cruz can take Trump down quickly enough, he might yet beat Rubio by combining the religious right with the anti-establishment vote, but considering that Trump is stronger than Cruz almost everywhere, that seems unlikely. (Cruz polls better as a second choice candidate  than Trump does, which is one indication that Trump would not benefit as much from Cruz getting sidelined as Cruz would benefit from Trump’s absence.)
All of this is a grim picture for libertarian-leaning Republicans and others who have put their hopes in one or both of the Pauls. A libertarian “fusion” candidate, like Rand Paul this year, is unlikely ever to surpass someone like Cruz who offers a more visceral appeal to non-libertarian right-wingers (religious or hawkish); while an insurgent libertarian, like Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012, is limited to getting more or less the same anti-establishment percentage that goes for a Trump or Buchanan—which has never been enough to beat the establishment.
The one thing neither Ron Paul nor Rand Paul tried is to court the establishment’s own voters—that is, those Republicans who just want a respectable, electable nominee. The problem with this approach is not that libertarianism can’t be respectable or electable; on the contrary, modestly libertarian attitudes can be found quite readily among center-right Republicans. Rather it’s that libertarians are romantics. Right-wing libertarians prefer dreams of populist uprisings or systemic collapse to the unglamorous and frankly dirty work of politics and policy, while center-left and dead-center libertarians tend to be technocratic types who disdain association with conservatives of any stripe. Their fantasy is of a world that keeps naturally getting nicer through guiltless sex and global commerce. Ahh!
America is nowhere near as anti-establishment or anti-statist as right-wing libertarians want it to be, while libertarians unsympathetic to the right are too mild to confront the love of power that in politics trumps the love of money and love of pleasure alike. Right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats both have much tougher agendas than non-right libertarians can handle. So those libertarians wind up with no firm allies—despite their hopeless infatuation with the left—while right-wing libertarians have mostly ineffective ones: unpopular populists, for example.
Ron Paul didn’t have illusions about any of this. His campaigns were educational rather than directly political; winning the nomination—let alone the White House—wasn’t the point. That’s not to say his efforts and those of his campaign staff (I was one of them in 2008) weren’t sincere: pushing as hard as possible for the nomination was the best way to advance the educational effort as well. But knowing what the odds against his winning were, Ron Paul fought on because there was always something else to be achieved.
Rand Paul was also clear-eyed: his aims were political, not educational, and the libertarian populism that served his father well would not win Rand—or anyone else—the presidency. So he broadened his brand; unsuccessfully, as it turns out. Movement conservatism is a rigid thing that doesn’t reward the ideologically entrepreneurial qualities that make libertarianism attractive to so many Americans of different backgrounds. A libertarian Republican has many novel views, for a Republican, about civil liberties, foreign policy, armistice in the culture war, and a capitalism that aspires not to be cronyism—all this can open the party to people turned off by the GOP’s presently bellicose brand. (Including younger religious conservatives and disillusioned Eisenhower Republicans.) But evangelical voters and movement conservatives are the Republican constituencies least appreciative of those ideas— less appreciative even than the average Romney or Dole voter.
Rand was right to try to broaden libertarianism’s political appeal, but he was mistaken in trying to become the most orthodox right-winger in the race at the very same time. Rather than trying to combine relatively well-defined and incompatible ideologies—libertarianism, religious rightism, and movement conservatism—a future contender might be better off trying to combine libertarianism with old-fashioned Republican pragmatism, the non-philosophy of the so-called establishment. Rubio shows how the neoconservatives have done this, fusing their stark ideology to an appearance of moderation and electability. Libertarians and reality-based conservatives can do likewise.
This does not mean failing to appeal at all to the more self-consciously right-wing elements in the party. The neoconservatives do, of course, have their own sway with evangelical right. But Bill Kristol never prefers the likes of Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum as the Republican nominee; the preferred vehicle for neoconservatism is always a respectable, electable one. That’s not because respectability and electability are inherently neoconservative traits—far from it—but rather because neoconservatives are more interested in winning office and shaping policy than they are in proving their right-wing bona fides. They know how the GOP works.
This is heresy, however, to anti-establishment populists, who prefer to lose with their ideological credentials intact rather than win by going mainstream. It’s also heresy to those who want to believe the Republican Party is deeply right-wing and principled rather than confusedly center-right and pragmatic. But the GOP is a national party: it can’t represent only the saved; it has to be a party of the damned, too—whether in religious terms or the mock-religious terms of ideology. It’s a party of sinners, statists, and sellouts just like any other party that actually wins office.
The campaigns of the two Pauls have been learning experiences for libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives. Ron Paul built a fundamentally nonpolitical movement, and others—including Rand—channeled its energies into political successes from the local level up to a race for the U.S. Senate. Rand Paul recognized that something more was needed to get to the White House, and he tried a plausible formula that turned out to be more plausible for Cruz than Rand. Another insurgent libertarian campaign won’t achieve anything that Ron Paul’s campaigns didn’t already achieve in 2008 and 2012; and another libertarian effort to be the most orthodox right-winger can be expected to end just like Rand’s. But libertarians and libertarian conservatives have another approach to try, one that co-opts the establishment foe that cannot be beaten by frontal assault. That’s an effort both political and educational, and it requires what for any ideologue is the hardest thing: learning to become the mainstream.