The presidential campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky seems to be struggling. He lags most other GOP candidates in fundraising. His poll numbers, never very high to begin with, have dropped to low single digits. To get media attention, he’s resorted to doing bad impressions of Donald Trump.
Aside from whatever personal or organizational shortcomings the senator may have, the Paul campaign has one fundamental problem. Its strategy hinges on rallying libertarian Republicans, a group that scarcely exists in the GOP primary electorate.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy that believes in minimal government across the board. It is both coherent and intellectually consistent. Libertarians would slash the welfare state, drastically limit intervention overseas, and maximize personal liberty in matters such as drug possession. (See here for a more complete definition.) This school of thought has deep intellectual roots, drawing on the work of Nobel Prize winners Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, among many others.
A while back, some commentators speculated that the 2016 campaign might be “the libertarian moment.” The Affordable Care Act had triggered a backlash against bureaucracy, attitudes toward social issues were rapidly becoming more tolerant, and Senator Paul got applause for his famous filibuster against the administration’s drone program.
It was a false dawn. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 11 percent of Americans (and 12 percent of Republicans) called themselves libertarian and knew what the term means. But the survey also found few of them held consistent libertarian views on the role of government, national security, and social issues. For example, 41 percent of self-described libertarians said that government regulation of business is necessary for the public interest, and 43 percent said that “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs.”
In hindsight, it seems that the Paul camp was misreading the tea leaves. Although the general public is shifting on social issues, Republicans remain more conservative than other groups. For instance, while majorities of independents (58 percent) and Democrats (59 percent) favor legalizing marijuana, an equally large majority of Republicans (59 percent) opposes it. A number of Republicans have faulted President Obama’s policies on terrorism, but in these polarized times, much of this opposition merely reflects partisan animus. The next time a Republican is in the White House, most of the criticism will come from the Democratic side.
The experience of Senator Paul’s father shows that libertarianism has a low ceiling in the GOP. Then-Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012, but in spite of very strong fundraising totals, he did not win a single primary in either year.
Senator Paul is trying to gain ground by stressing his economic conservatism. That message will hardly distinguish him from the rest of the field. Every other candidate claims to be an economic conservative – even former New York Gov. George Pataki, who notoriously made deals with his state’s powerful unions.
Perhaps a future “libertarian moment” will give Rand Paul a chance – but it won’t happen in 2016.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.