The Ron Paul Movement Dies With A Whimper

Scott Greer Contributor
Font Size:

After months of disappointing poll results and humiliating debate performances, [crscore]Rand Paul[/crscore] announced Wednesday he’s dropping out of the presidential race.

Finishing in fifth place with a dismal 4.5 percent of the vote in Iowa was not exactly the “shocking” result Paul’s campaign promised its supporters and media critics. Rand’s spokesmen had been adamant that the polls were wrong and the campaign’s college student ground game was going to give everyone’s favorite pro-marijuana legislator victory. (RELATED: Could College Kids Be Rand Paul’s Saving Grace In Iowa?)

College students did make an impact Monday — for Bernie Sanders, not Paul. (RELATED: Five Trends The Iowa Exit Polls Reveal)

With his numbers looking even worse in New Hampshire, the great libertarian hope swallowed his pride and vowed to focus solely on his Senate re-election campaign in Kentucky.

While the majority of reports were gleefully declaring Donald Trump the biggest loser in Iowa Monday night, Paul was a much better choice for that honor.

Ever since his father conceded defeat to Mitt Romney and the 2012 Republican nominee went on to lose the general election, it was thought Rand was poised to become a serious contender for the 2016 race. He was said to be the “electable” version of Ron Paul, a libertarian who was willing to “play the game” and do the necessary outreach to prove he wasn’t as kooky as his dad.

On top of his mainstream appeal, Rand would inherit the expansive infrastructure and energy which the elder Paul forged during his two presidential campaigns and could count on hundreds of dedicated volunteers to spread his message to the masses.

It’s worth remembering how Ron Paul was able to create a lasting grassroots movement with his 2008 campaign and which spawned several groups — such as Young Americans for Liberty and Campaign for Liberty — that were designed to promote the libertarian message. Several activists who got their start in politics campaigning for Paul were able to march through the institutions of the conservative movement and the Republican Party in order to gain prominent positions to help out Rand’s 2016 bid.

As evidenced by the leadership of the Iowa state GOP following the 2012 election, this form of entryism boasted successful results.

From 2013 onwards, Paul made many moves calculated to make him look more respectable in the eyes of the Republican old guard. To those who thought of him as an isolationist, the libertarian senator made it clear an attack on Israel would be an attack on America. He also sounded bellicose when it came to Russia’s moves in Ukraine (a stark contrast with his father on the subject) and firmly opposed the Iran nuclear deal.

However, the respectable Paul received far fewer votes in Iowa than the kooky Paul who wanted to end the fed and eliminate aid to Israel.

How did that happen?

According to some on the Right, it was due to Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy in a world where ISIS exists. That doesn’t hold up too well when you consider how the two leaders of the race right now — Donald Trump and [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore] — have more in common with Rand when it comes to foreign policy than they do with the rest of the Republican field. (RELATED: The GOP Is Having An America First Moment)

According to the Paul campaign, it’s all Trump’s fault for the senator’s poor performance. This assertion does have some truth to it, but it fails to acknowledge how Rand “playing the game” ultimately cost him his father’s base without any new gains from the general Republican electorate. (RELATED: Rand Paul Aide Blames Trump For Failed Presidential Bid)

The “playing the game” phrase which became strongly associated with Paul was popularized by his erstwhile adviser Jack Hunter. Hunter told reporters in 2013 that Rand warming up to the Republican establishment and evincing a more hawkish tone on foreign policy was just him doing what he must to advance politically.

Paul backed Senate Republican leader [crscore]Mitch McConnell[/crscore] in the Kentuckian’s bitter 2014 primary battle with a tea party challenger in order to secure his favor. Rand even supplied McConnell with one of his trusted aides to serve as the Senate leader’s campaign manager.

Additionally, the heir to the liberty movement spent lots of time on that most treasured of Republican efforts — outreach. Paul met with several black leaders — including Al Sharpton — and spoke before many minority audiences in an attempt to expand the reach of his libertarian message. Paul also received rave applause during university appearances and looked to be a good bet for bringing in young people into the GOP fold. (RELATED: Rand Paul Gets Standing Applause At Berkeley)

However, this outreach has come at the price of Paul wavering on certain issues and even coming out on the opposite side of the average Republican voter. During the immigration fight of 2013, Paul played footsie with the Gang of Eight bill before ultimately voting against it. Prior to that decision though, he made a high-profile endorsement of legalizing illegal immigrants in March of that year. In 2014, he was still saying he supported “immigration reform” and wanted the party to get past the term “amnesty” to describe it.

Before dropping out, Paul was hitting both Cruz and [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] for supporting amnesty while ignoring his own history on the issue.

He came out against voter identification laws back in 2014 because they alienated African-Americans, but he quickly backtracked on that statement and said he wasn’t really opposed to the measures. (RELATED: Rand Paul Slams Voter ID: ‘It’s Offending People’)

Paul was the most prominent Republican advocate of criminal justice reform and harshly criticized the “militarization” of police. While justice reform was once seen as a popular bipartisan effort, there’s now significant pushback against the legislation from Republican lawmakers and the GOP electorate seems to desire law and order rather than releasing thousands of criminals back into the general population.

But Paul’s outreach and game playing efforts did come with the pay off of earning plaudits from the press. Time magazine dubbed him “The Most Interesting Man in Politics” and numerous commentators praised him for championing criminal justice reform and reaching out to minorities. Observers thought his overtures to the Republican establishment made him a more serious candidate than his father and surveys showing live and let live attitudes towards gay marriage and marijuana legalization seemed to boost Paul’s appeal.

The New York Times saw all these developments as a sign America was having a “libertarian moment” in a lengthy August 2014 article.

If 2016 presidential preferences are any indication, America is not at all experiencing a political libertarian moment. More accurately, our country is having an anti-establishment populist moment — and Rand was ill-equipped to feed off that national feeling. Ron Paul was the prime adversary of the establishment during his two presidential campaigns and his son was thought to carry that fervor into 2016. (RELATED: Sorry Rand, The GOP Is Not Having A Libertarian Moment)

But Trump and Bernie Sanders seemed to have sucked up all of that discontent this election cycle, leaving Paul as one of the many also-rans of the GOP race. The senator banked on the anger of the tea party and right-leaning voters being based on the tax code and federal regulations, and thought he could deftly tailor his message to win over new demographics to the GOP.

He failed to understand the power of immigration among Republican primary voters until Trump made it one of the top issues of the election cycle. His campaign also didn’t consider that part of Ron’s appeal was not based on ideology but his principled stands against the political establishment. The elder Paul always maintained the image of the scrappy underdog in 2008 and 2012, while his crazy, yet lovable uncle act endeared him to many voters. There was a certain populist flavor to Paul the elder which appeared to make up more of his appeal than his libertarian policy proposals.

What else can explain large numbers of his supporters choosing Sanders and Trump — men with very different politics from Paul — this election cycle?

On the other hand, Paul the younger looked like a whiny wimp for most of 2016 as he complained about Trump bullying him and not getting enough time to speak at debates. The issues he decided to focus on didn’t resonate with the present feeling of the Republican electorate and his game playing discouraged many die-hard libertarians from supporting him. (RELATED: Rand Paul 2016: The Diary Of A Wimpy Campaign)

Nor did his fabled wooing over of young people and minorities translate into votes.

The attempt to strike a balance between being an honest-to-God libertarian and a smooth political operator was always a tall task for Paul, and 2016 proved he wasn’t the man to do it. The “Defeat the Washington Machine” candidate spent too much time trying to woo over the Beltway media and too little time crafting a campaign message voters would take to.

Essentially, the game played Rand.

The utter failure of Paul’s 2016 run leaves the movement his father built at a crossroads. If all the work done since 2007 resulted in a four percent finish in Iowa, the chances of a libertarian candidate winning the Republican nomination anytime soon are nil and the liberty movement is about to take a serious plunge in political viability.

One thing is for certain though: the era of a Paul family member running for president every four years is over.

Follow Scott on Twitter