One of the more interesting political questions this campaign season has been whether libertarian should support Rand Paul. Granted, I realize this probably isn’t a question that most Americans have grappled with since most Americans don’t identify as anything like a libertarian. But within the general libertarian movement, however you define that, this has been a major issue. And in the aftermath of a strong debate performance by Rand in the most recent event, this question is very relevant.
There are good points on both sides of this question and they are worth discussing, but we should emphasize that there is still a lot of common ground here. And in a movement as small as the libertarian / limited government one, it’s critical to avoid divisions whenever possible. So let’s begin with the common ground. (Also, I should note that I’m using the term libertarian in the general sense, rather than to refer to the Libertarian Party.)
When libertarians criticize Rand Paul, that does not imply they think a different Republican or Democratic candidate is better. I can’t speak for all of them, but I think most would acknowledge that Rand is the best (or if you prefer, the least bad) candidate remaining in either major political party. Fair enough. But saying someone is the best option, and saying they are a good option are entirely different statements. If you prioritize foreign policy issues, I think one can make an argument that Obama was a far superior candidate to John McCain, who has apparently never seen a country he didn’t want to (try to) bomb into democracy. But that doesn’t mean Obama was a good candidate on foreign policy; it basically just means he was less likely to start a nuclear war. Similarly, even if one concedes that Rand is the best option available, it does not therefore follow that you should be a vigorous supporter. That may be the appropriate response, but it is not necessarily so. Again, try the analogy out on the 2008 general election, and the point is obvious. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if you think Obama or McCain was less awful; the point is that that determination probably was not sufficient to convert you into a champion for that candidate.
Now let’s move on to the more detailed arguments.
At the core of this debate is a question of effectiveness. Virtually everyone in this movement has the same goal I think: namely, we’d like to see a pro-peace, pro-liberty candidate get elected to the highest office as soon as possible. The problem is there aren’t enough libertarians and peaceniks in America to make this a conceivable outcome at present. Two competing solutions are offered to solve this problem. Either you can try to convey the principled message and persuade the American people that peaceful, libertarian solutions are the best ones (the Principles Approach), or you can try to trick the American people into accidentally electing a decent person for a change (the Pander Approach). Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns largely embodied the first approach; Rand Paul has taken the second. Let’s examine Rand’s approach first.
So in order to dupe the American people, Rand needs to act like a conservative, take the standard conservative line on most issues, and use the same standard talking points to win over the Republican voters (less government, Ronald Reagan, look at my red tie, etc.). Meanwhile, he’ll take a real stand on a few liberty / foreign policy issues, to signal to everyone who’s paying attention that he’s actually legitimate without totally blowing his cover. And then when he takes a bad position because it’s fashionable for Republicans (against the Iran Deal for instance), the pro-Rand camp will just say that he’s doing what he has to do.
This argument is superficially appealing, and I would even go so far as to say it was worth trying. But I think this election cycle so far has proved that this strategy isn’t effective, especially this year. In an election cycle where all the Republicans are competing to see who can be the most horrible on virtually every foreign policy and civil liberties issue, Rand (thankfully) wasn’t able to keep up. But his efforts in that direction simultaneously prevented him from differentiating himself in any other way. In short, it seems we can say with some confidence the strategy didn’t work. He narrowly made the main stage in the most recent debate, and his positive reception in the debates has been directly proportional to how strongly he expressed libertarian principles and emulated Ron. No one even noticed his presence in the first rounds when he tried to play the conventional conservative; but it was hard to miss him in the last two debates.
Another issue with this theory is, what if it worked? Say that somehow Rand Paul really was able to get elected by running effectively undercover. If he got into office on day 1 and tried to implement radical libertarian policies, he would clearly get impeached. And then there’d be no popular support to defend him from it. Maybe he’d get to write an executive order or two, but it’s hard to see how he’d get any further than that. It’s true that politicians abandon their campaign promises all the time without consequences (cough, closing Guantanamo, ending the War in Afghanistan, etc.), but that’s because the politically connected are in favor of the policies they pursue instead. This is a key point. If one tried to implement a policy that directly contradicted their campaign rhetoric and the wishes of the political elite, they would not last long. It’s very difficult to conceive of any other outcome.
By contrast, Ron Paul took the Principles Approach and stuck to his libertarian roots on essentially every issue. The packaging might have varied slightly, but the core ideas were there. He was unafraid to tell Americans the truth as he saw it on everything, even the taboo issues of foreign policy blowback and the Federal Reserve. We have Ron Paul to thank for the fact that these concepts are even kind of in the mainstream political discussion at this point. And while it’s true that he didn’t win either election, he still inspired countless numbers of people to become politically aware and embrace the message of peace and free markets (including yours truly). The value of this is difficult to overstate, even if it did not have immediate practical implications.
Ultimately, the relative merits of these approaches seems to be answered empirically. Around this same time during Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign, he was actually leading in Iowa with 23%. Meanwhile, Rand’s support in Iowa was just 1% on December 23rd. And yes, part of this is likely due to the fact that 2016 has a bigger field, but that’s clearly not a sufficient explanation. Even on its own terms, the Pander Approach seemingly employed by the Rand campaign has not worked. The goal was to broaden the support base, and in fact, it did the opposite.
This debate is occasionally framed as a trade-off between practical short-term solutions to increase the chances of winning elections (the Pander Approach) and a longer-term campaign to win the American people over to the ideas of libertarianism (the Principles Approach). What the results from 2012 and the primary season thus far indicate, however, is that there is no trade-off at all. Unless the polls are completely wrong or something dramatically changes, the Principles Approach appears to produce better results from a short-term and long-term perspective. That doesn’t mean the Rand campaign should be ostracized for trying it out; it simply means that we should adjust present and future tactics accordingly. Based on the last debate, and some recent posts by the campaign, there have been some signs that they are making changes along these lines.
A final note on this subject relates to the question of branding. As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, many people point out that Rand Paul is clearly the most libertarian candidate in the race and conclude that he therefore deserves the support of libertarians. While this may seem compelling on its face, it’s not. And by support, I presently mean something beyond just quietly voting in the primary such as donating, volunteering, endorsing the campaign, brow-beating disinterested friends, etc.
The trouble is that there is a real risk diluting a message too much. Think of it this way. What if I say to you, I’m a Christian, but I don’t believe in abstinence, I don’t think any part of the Bible should be interpreted literally, I don’t think the Ten Commandments are a big deal, etc?* At some point, if I’ve listed enough heresies / disagreements with the label I’ve adopted, a reasonable person might respond by saying, so what you mean is that you’re not a Christian. So too, if a candidate deviates enough from what libertarians believe, there’s a point at which continuing to use the libertarian label to describe that person is confusing and counterproductive. With Ron Paul, it was easy to explain to people that he’s a libertarian on everything except immigration. But with Rand, one has to say, well he’s a libertarian, but he opposed the diplomatic deal with Iran, supports the appalling actions of Israel, wants to have some kind of intervention against ISIS, wants to increase military spending, etc. There’s no objective way to say exactly where the line is, and reasonable people can disagree on whether promoting Rand Paul as a messenger of libertarian-ish ideas is helpful or not. But it’s clear that Rand flirts with this line in a way that Ron Paul did not, and it should be equally clear that the principle of “least bad” is not and should not be sufficient to command vehement support from libertarian-leaning people.
*As you probably suspected, I’m not religious and I’m not entirely confident that the items I listed are appropriately taboo or heretical. Hopefully, they were close enough to give you the general idea.