It has been a little over a month since Kentucky Senator Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race, but for liberty activists across the country it has seemed like an eternity as we watch what has become a very depressing primary process unfolding. At this point most in the liberty movement are simply trying to gain a sense of what happened and how to fix it. Some have argued that this was the cycle of Trump and there was absolutely nothing that we could have done to change the outcome in the end, and that even Ron Paul would have run into a similar fate. While I believe there is some truth to the idea that Trump would have always won in the end, there is no doubt that mistakes were made on the campaign trail and build up to the campaign which prevented us from galvanizing the sort of donor base, social media prevalence and grassroots engagement that set Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns apart.
Before we get into it, I think it is important to make clear that I supported the strategy which was implemented 100% and have been conclusively proven wrong by what has unfolded. I have learned my lesson and believe it is imperative that we have a discussion as a movement about what sort of lessons must be learned from this major setback. In order for the liberty movement to not only have a better showing in 2020 (whether with Rand Paul or someone else) but also stop the lack of momentum we’ve experienced in recent congressional and senate elections we must learn these lessons and apply them to future election cycles. In the end, there were a few very clear things which went wrong with Rand Paul 2016 that prevented us from breaking out of our single digit polling status:
1. A Lack of Libertarian Engagement
The 2013 election cycle began with Rand Paul in a very strong polling position according to Real Clear Politics, placing in the top five of all potential candidates nationally, in Iowa and in New Hampshire. He was the only candidate other than Jeb Bush who was accomplishing this at the time. That being said, Rand began to reach out to other bases early on in his effort, and many in the liberty base felt that he was taking them for granted. If there was one thing that drew liberty activists to passionately advocate for Ron Paul in 2012 it was that he put our principles above absolutely everything else, even winning. When liberty activists began to feel like they were part of a triangulation effort many of them pushed back. Whether it was the war on drugs, foreign policy (whether Iran, Israel or Iraq), gay marriage, Edward Snowden, abortion, climate change or a host of other issues libertarian defenders of Rand Paul constantly found ourselves defending his position and clarifying his language amongst other libertarians.
In hindsight, it’s hard to look at this list and not see the concerns those activists had at the time. In many ways this stylistic departure from the principle driven advocacy of Ron Paul proved to be our downfall, as liberty activists (and more importantly conservatives at large) began to see Rand Paul as a triangulating politician rather than the man of principle his voting record has clearly shown him to be. This caused some of the liberty activists who are more stubborn about adherence to principle to leave the campaign early on, and caused many more who saw what Rand was doing but weren’t excited about it to lessen the depth and passion of their activism in comparison to what it was for Ron Paul in 2012. By the time Rand attempted to turn it around in the fall of 2015 by going full libertarian it was already too late, the damage with his base had been done. He was already relegated to the minor candidate status that his father avoided until the very end in the 2012 cycle.
2. A Campaign From A Cynical Premise
This criticism will probably rub some of my friends who have worked on the campaign the wrong way, and I hope they do not take it personally, but looking at the list of statements above from 2013 and 2014 paints a pretty clear picture of a candidate who was cynically taking his base for granted and attempting to distance himself from that base to appeal to voters who viewed them with suspicion. As a supporter of this strategy in 2013 and 2014 I distinctly remember thinking that even libertarians who were upset with Rand’s compromises would have no choice but to hold their nose and vote for him in the primary and that the outreach would pay off via people from other coalitions such as social conservatives and the tea party joining our campaign. As such, I cheered as Rand essentially attempted to fool people (very poorly) into thinking he was an interventionist on foreign policy, a defender of the governments role in drug policy and a fighter for “traditional marriage” among other things when he should have been focused on rejecting those premises all together in the strongest possible language. Likewise, I cheered as he stumped for the worst sort of political garbage the Republican Party has to offer. Ultimately, the social conservatives and tea partiers found candidates who embodied their values much more strongly and the liberty base had a large contingent either holding its nose or refusing to participate because our guy wasn’t speaking our language. This cynical approach was the antithesis of everything Ron Paul embodied, and more than anything else is the reason for the difference in the success of the two. If there is one lesson we must learn as a movement it is that campaigns operated from a cynical premise always fail. We must focus on building our tent and reaching out to people on the basis of the idea that our principles are the best method of achieving their desired goals, instead Rand Paul attempted to be everything to everybody and would up pleasing very few. If pursuing a “grow the tent” strategy means we cannot actually win for a few more cycles, so be it, but at least we will see growth. What we have instead is a major setback. The sort of setbacks we have endured cannot be tolerated going forward.
3. Attempted To Convince People He Was A Conventional Politician
Whether it was the Mitch McConnell endorsement, campaigning for RINO Republicans such as Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander or cutting commercials for the Chamber of Commerce, much of Rand Paul’s 2016 “pre-campaign” was spent attempting to convince establishment Republicans that he was not the scary anti politician that his father was and could be worked with. This brought us early success, as Rand Paul was #1 in the Real Clear Politics national polling average for virtually all of the 2014 midterm election cycle. I remember watching him speak at Fancy Farm in 2014 on Mitch McConnell’s behalf and having grand visions of the party establishment giving the liberty movement the green light. But ultimately that was a fantasy, and this advocacy was one of the biggest criticisms of Rand Paul as a candidate from liberty people and conservatives alike. Given the major anti establishment mood of the 2016 elections, this was the exact opposite of what Rand Paul should have been doing. We must learn an important lesson as it relates to politics that liberty people understand implicitly in foreign policy; no good can come from aligning with thugs. When you lay with dogs you come up with fleas, and any Rand Paul supporter who is honest will admit the McConnell endorsement was one of the single largest roadblocks to attracting the anti establishment vote. Rand should have been aggressively publicly distancing himself from people like Mitch McConnell and hammering people like John Boehner, instead he attempted to make peace with them and a conservative base that wants war with those people felt betrayed.
4. Ran A General Election Campaign During The Primary
One of the major strategies of Rand Paul 2016 going in was to convince the Republican voter that we were the candidate who was best positioned to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. When this strategy saw a lot of empirical backing in the form of Rand defeating Hillary in many state polls the campaign doubled down on the strategy, trying to brand themselves as a “different kind of Republican”. Ultimately this led to the campaign pushing issues like criminal justice reform which, while admirable, do not motivate the liberty voter base nearly to the extent of issues such as reigning in the federal reserve or our reckless foreign policy. Furthermore, they do not motivate voters who should be easy converts such as tea party voters in the way that major spending cuts or tax reductions do. This is not to say Rand did not have the best answers on taxes and spending, his plans spoke for themselves. But ultimately people want a limited government Republican, not a different kind of Republican, and Rand emphasized the latter too much too early. This led to us losing steam in primary polling and by late summer being left out of polls vs Hillary Clinton entirely, rendering the electability argument useless. That being said, even if polling companies kept putting Rand’s name in there I doubt it would have made a difference. Ultimately the voters who vote based on “electability” have been a much smaller share in 2016 than it was in 2012, which made this strategy a severe miscalculation.
5. The Liberty Movement propping up Ted Cruz
This is not a Rand Paul centric criticism, but it has become quite clear through numerous acts of betrayal that our movements support of Ted Cruz was ill advised and that we must be much more careful who we champion as a movement in the future. The liberty movement was instrumental in getting Cruz elected to the Texas senate, with several Cruz campaign staffers having come out of the movement and Cruz having received a coveted endorsement and a lot of activist support from Young Americans for Liberty. This continued into 2013 with YAL inviting Cruz to their convention on a panel alongside Rand Paul, and ultimately concluded in Cruz running for president and eliminating much of our opportunity to coalesce tea party support which the movement was counting on to push us over the top in the 2016 election. Additionally, this created the opportunity for a small number of people to create a narrative of liberty activists going to Ted Cruz which largely did not play out in reality. Even still, the narrative put the movement on the defensive and allowed Cruz to ride his advantages with evangelicals and tea party voters into a stronger position than where we were in the process. I am not saying we should avoid supporting candidates who may run against liberty people for president in the future, but I am saying that we should only support liberty movement people and by propping up Ted Cruz during his senate run we allowed a non liberty candidate to limit our potential for success in this primary to a devastating degree. Though I think Trump would still win in the end, had Cruz not been around to deal with Rand Paul may be the conservative alternative to Trump at this point, as the political calculation would have been fundamentally different.
6. A Core Campaign Staff of Non Liberty People
One of the fundamental miscalculations of Rand Paul 2016, as previously stated, had been the desire to triangulate the message rather than champion it. This problem was reflected in the campaign staff, which had very little prior connection to the liberty movement and very likely resulted in an unclear and watered down campaign message. Whether it was hiring a campaign manager who ended up going to Marco Rubio, a New Hampshire director who ended up working for John Kasich or a national political director who worked for Rick Santorum in 2012 there was a consistent theme of Rand Paul putting people in top positions who had no prior experience with the liberty movement. As we ended up seeing, the campaign ultimately had a lot of trouble understanding the liberty voter and effectively engaging them, I would argue as a result of this. Now, this was not a ubiquitous problem, we did have people such as Steve Grubbs in Iowa who did a very good job despite having no prior connection to the movement. That being said, ultimately you need a campaigns core to be comprised of people who passionately believe in the message the candidate is advocating, otherwise you will continue to have this problem of engaging and motivating a base that was historically highly engaged in the process. Some of this is going to mean we have candidates take their lumps in the future developing a “farm system” of staffers and strategists, but ultimately it is the only way to build the movement in a sustainable way.
There were many other factors which conspired to harm Rand Paul’s candidacy in 2016, but of all of them I believe these were at least a few of the major ones which we can learn from and prevent going forward. This is a very young political movement that is made up largely of very young people, and the idea that we were never going to experience a major setback was naive in hindsight. Conservative icon Morton Blackwell has always said “Don’t fully trust anyone until he has stuck with a good cause which he saw was losing”, and I do not believe he could have been more correct. Ultimately the liberty movement will either learn from these mistakes and move forward or ignore these lessons and repeat the mistakes until we do learn them. I sincerely hope that we have seen the last of cynical politicking, triangulation and disengaging from the base in libertarian presidential campaigns going forward.