Rand Paul’s campaign will make libertarianism a household name…and that’s great.
I’ll be the first to admit now officially declared candidate Rand Paul is long shot to win the GOP nomination, much less the White House. While the Kentucky Republican has a built in grassroots/donor base from his father’s two presidential campaigns, and he has proven an adept politician, the balancing act between being “too dovish” and not alienating his libertarian base, between expanding the party to non-traditional Republican voters while not turning off reliable GOP votes, and the perpetual challenge for all candidates: maintaining a campaign strategy that works in both the primary and general elections, may be too great.
But even if Senator Paul fails to win in 2016, one thing is clear: modern American libertarianism, with its emphasis on individual liberty, limited government, and skepticism toward war, will be discussed more than ever before is national politics. Obviously, this can be both a blessing and a curse. MSNBC-style progressives will no doubt inflate his admittedly foolish statements on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as racist statements printed under his father’s newsletters. Neoconservatives and establishment Republicans, no doubt, will have a field day of accusing Mr. Paul of being “anti-” everything under the Sun, such as being anti-Israel, anti-Military, and, of course, anti-American.
But this is a moot point. If hyperbolic web articles had any substantive negative effect, Salon.com could have taken a victory lap 5 years ago. And much to the chagrin of traditional partisans, Americans are less attached to party labels and have a sharper nose for nonsense than before. And that sharper nose is increasingly like the smell of libertarianism when it comes to the specific issues of the day.
Whether we’re talking about school choice and education reform, getting rid of mandatory minimums, reforming civil asset forfeiture, legalizing marijuana, expanding gun rights, reducing government surveillance, reducing police brutality, as well as many other issues.
But however much the public is increasingly assuming libertarian(ish) positions on national issues, what they lack is a political framework to contextualize them. And the only political philosophy, broadly interpreted, is libertarianism. Many had hoped this paradigm would change after Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign and after his more successful (but ultimately failed) 2012 campaign.
There were two factors for that paradigm didn’t change. One was Ron Paul himself. The Texas Congressman’s quirky and anti-establishment style, while endearing, did not draw enough voters to his cause to launch him out of the initial primary states. The second factor. The second was strategy. The elder Paul ran his campaign like a libertarian seminar, not understanding that as a presidential candidate you have to be more than just college instructor.
Rand Paul, as mentioned before, is about as savvy a politician as any realistic libertarian can reasonably expect. In politics, you have to decide with three or four issues are most important to you and pursue them relentlessly, while being able to ditch the small stuff.
As it turns out, there once a pro-liberty candidate, who while not much of a strategist, understood the power simple yet principled platforms. In 1964, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater ran on a platform that emphasized freedom at home, strength abroad (not the stupidity of nation building, mind you), and understanding of traditional so-called Judeo-Christian principles in underpinning Western liberty and free government.
Bringing the issue back to the public and political context, by the mid 1960’s many Americans had had enough of the increasing bureaucratizing of America and its threat to their liberties, as well as the moral equivocating with the Soviet Union.
Senator Goldwater smashed this paradigm once and for all. When the East Coast Republican establishment was poised to nominate the very-liberal Republican Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, the frustrated delegates revolted and nominated Goldwater.
Electorally, it was a catastrophe. Goldwater went down to landslide defeat to incumbent President Lyndon Baines Johnson, losing all but his home state of Arizona and several states in the deep south.
If Rand Paul were to be nominated by the GOP and lose, he would certainly do better than Goldwater. But a loss is still a loss. Many in the media and establishment Washington would ring their hands of the libertarian movement.
However, on the road to defeat electorally, Rand Paul would kick the door wide open on opposition to libertarian values and could lead to a rebirth of small government activism.
Barry Goldwater lost the battle but won the war in Republican party, moving the GOP permanently to right on taxes, spending, and regulation, and against moral equivocation with the Soviet Union and Communism itself.
Rand Paul, win or lose, will do the same in 2016: Make the GOP more libertarian on lifestyle choice, more serious about controlling government power, and embedding a default skepticism for extreme intervention abroad.