By Brian Hawkins*
Senator Rand Paul’s disappointing finish in the Iowa caucus has ended his campaign for the Republican Party presidential nomination. It didn’t have to end this way. Once hailed as “the most interesting man in politics” by Time magazine, Rand Paul entered the Republican presidential primary with the opportunity to fundamentally transform the GOP by bringing in Millennials, foreign policy non-interventionists, and social moderates. If there was an opportune moment for a libertarian Republican like Senator Paul to stand out from a crowded field of candidates, 2016 was it. Though he did assume a more libertarian message in the final weeks before the Iowa caucus, it was too little, too late. Rand sought to moderate his pro-liberty message to make it more malleable for traditional social conservatives and foreign policy hawks but led to alienating both mainstream conservative voters and his natural libertarian base. On the consequential issues of our time, foreign policy, immigration, civil liberties, free trade and criminal justice reform, Rand ultimately abandoned the principles that endeared him to libertarians across the country.
Before announcing his intentions to run for president, Rand signaled that he would moderate his positions on foreign policy when he suddenly flipped and supported a bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria in the summer of 2014. He maintained this position even after months of bombing ISIS targets failed to impose any discernible degradation on the Islamic State’s war-making capabilities. In such a scenario, the fear for principled non-interventionists is the inevitable mission creep that such a bombing campaign would invite. Once ISIS began making ground movements amongst the civilian population, as they have already done, would Paul then support inserting U.S. ground troops to pursue an infantry battle against ISIS? On the contrary, Paul has consistently opposed overthrowing Bashir al-Assad in Syria and arming Syrian rebels, positions that have proven his foreign policy instincts to be wise. However, his sudden hawkish turn on bombing ISIS was only one of many offenses to libertarian values.
On immigration, Paul has oscillated between protectionism and free market immigration reform, consequently disappointing both libertarians and the social conservatives whose support he sought. In 2013, during the heat of the debate on Marco Rubio’s Gang of Eight immigration bill, Paul took an inclusive approach to immigration reform when speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Paul at the time said about his immigration plan:
“It would also enable us to let more people in and allow us to admit we are not going to deport the millions of people who are currently here illegally.
This is where prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into being taxpaying members of society.
Imagine 12 million people who are already here coming out of the shadows to become new taxpayers. 12 million more people assimilating into society. 12 million more people being productive contributors.”
Since then, Paul has taken a protectionist approach to immigration. In a complete disregard for federalism and an attempt to join the demagoguery of immigration issues, Sen. Paul proposed a bill that defunded sanctuary cities and required local law enforcement agencies to notify U.S. immigration authorities of the arrest of an illegal immigrant. The libertarian magazine Reason condemned the proposal.
Furthermore, Rand Paul has proposed a “pause” on immigration from Muslim Middle Eastern countries and advocated for restoring a post-9/11 Patriot Act amendment that required heightened scrutiny for travelers from Muslim countries. Doubly troubling about Paul’s demagoguery of Muslims is the inconsistency with his signature issues of surveillance and civil liberties. It is difficult to take Rand Paul’s adherence to individual liberty and inclusiveness seriously when he is eager to bring forth the power of government intrusion onto a group of people for no other reason than their religion.
Expounding upon protectionist economic policies, Rand Paul opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. TPP is a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries to include Australia, Japan, Vietnam, and Peru, which would reduce trade barriers by streamlining port customs documentation, eliminating over 18,000 tariffs and relaxing other restrictions to ease the flow of goods between the member countries. Though such opposition is well-received among populist conservatives, it is inconsistent with Rand’s supposed fervor for free markets.
Rand Paul’s brightest moment in the most recent Republican debate came when he eloquently articulated the conservative case for criminal justice reform. Sadly, however, he has been virtually silent on the issue as Congress debates two major criminal justice reform bills. Paul had the opportunity to use the spotlight of being on the presidential campaign trail to highlight the need for criminal justice reform and use the issue to expand the Republican coalition but instead in the GOP primary he has abandoned one of this issues that made him relevant in the first place.
Rational libertarians expected Rand Paul to hedge some positions while campaigning for the GOP nomination. However, moderating some of his positions would have been more palatable to libertarians if there were just one or two minor instances. Instead, since announcing his candidacy for the presidential nomination last year, Paul has compromised almost all of the major issues that endeared him to libertarian voters. Paul could have reoriented the Republican Party away from Donald Trump’s populist nationalism and towards a libertarian-leaning philosophy that stood for individual liberty and economic opportunity for all Americans. Instead, he cowered to the rage of Trumpism.
If Ron Paul’s third place 23% performance in the 2012 Iowa caucus relegated him to the fringes of the Republican presidential primary, Rand Paul’s fifth place 4.5% finish has made him irrelevant. Now, small “l” libertarians will be left searching for a new candidate to advocate their message in the GOP presidential primary. By refusing to carry the banner of libertarianism on the national stage, Rand Paul missed out on an opportunity to transform politics as we know it.
About the author:
*Brian Hawkins is the policy coordinator at the American Legislative Exchange Council. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army where he served tours of duty to South Korea and Afghanistan. Brian graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. The views expressed are his own.
This article was published by Bombs and Dollars.