Jesse Benton’s story is a parable for the liberty movement, that heavily young group of libertarian-leaning activists taking the GOP by storm, no matter what you think of the scandal that led to his resignation from Mitch McConnell’s campaign.
Benton rose through the ranks of Ron Paul’s Republican presidential campaigns, as the candidate himself went from an asterisk in 2007 polls to a top-three finisher in both Iowa and New Hampshire in 2012. He married the boss’ granddaughter.
Along the way, Benton helped Rand Paul win a Senate seat from Kentucky. Since that involved prevailing over McConnell and the entire state Republican establishment as well as the Democrats, some were surprised that he was tapped to manage the Senate minority leader’s 2014 re-election campaign.
From working with the backbenchers to the height of Republican leadership in less than a decade, Benton’s ascent stalled when his name was mentioned in association with a scandal in which an Iowa state senator pled guilty to taking a $73,000 bribe to support Ron Paul in 2012.
I have no idea what the facts are here, other than Benton has adamantly denied any involvement. For whatever it is worth, some friends and sources echo those denials. I have no idea whether this parable belongs in John or James.
What I do know was that Benton was a lightning rod for libertarians who thought the liberty movement had grown too Republican, too conservative, even too political. Any decision the Paul campaigns made that these libertarians didn’t like was blamed on Benton.
In some ways, that was similar to the role moderates like Michael Deaver and James Baker played for movement conservatives in Ronald Reagan’s administration — they were the corrupting influences who wouldn’t let Reagan be Reagan. Benton was accused of being the careerist Republican interloper who wouldn’t let Ron be Ron.
It was a veteran of Ron Paul’s first, less successful but in some ways more ideologically pure GOP campaign who taped and exposed the bribery. A libertarian site that has been highly critical of Benton was one of the first to run with the story.
Expect the libertarian criticism that has up until now mostly been absorbed by Benton to be directed with increasing intensity at Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie and other Republicans involved in practical politics.
These libertarians are happy to use politics as a platform for educating people about their ideas, but are not as interested in the messy processes of winning, legislating and compromising. “If Rand stays in the race for the presidency, he will move more and more away from libertarian positions,” reads a representative warning from a libertarian blogger. “The system is set up to eat you, you don’t get to eat the system.”
Persuading Republicans to vote for candidates who oppose wars or wireless wiretapping counts for little in some quarters if they don’t go on to embrace the nonaggression principle in full.
That said, a political movement based on principle has to discern the difference between compromise and capitulation. There is also little to gain, and much to lose, from a reputation for flip-flopping and insincerity. There are times to hold one’s nose and to hold one’s tongue.
Growing political movements attract all kinds of people in the early going. Modern American conservatism between National Review’s founding and Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, for example, was hardly a kook-free zone. And when political coalitions are still relatively small, it is easy to take whatever allies you can get, no matter how eccentric, amateurish, incompetent or even corrupt.
But sometimes, especially as a political movement grows, such people can actually do real damage. Perhaps they believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Maybe they think a little-known state senator’s endorsement is worth tens of thousands of dollars. (Not even in fiat currency.)
Moreover, with success and a higher profile comes increased scrutiny. That is especially true for a political faction whose detractors contain people on both the left and the right, as well as inside their own movement.
The internal conflicts, ideological disagreements, moral dilemmas and political mistakes on display here aren’t just about Jesse Benton. They are things the wider liberty movement is going to have to think about in 2016 and beyond.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.