Rand Paul on Wednesday announced that he is out of the presidential race. Here was a man that the Republican establishment feared was going to overturn the party's consensus on a number of issues. He had some of his father's uniquely libertarian policy commitments, but he combined it with a more accessible and conventional Republican persona. He should have been able to top his father's performances in the last two presidential cycles. Yet, his campaign ended before New Hampshire. What happened?
There's a temptation to read his failure to replicate even his father's success like this: Ron Paul combined his libertarian ideas with white-identity populism in the Ron Paul newsletters and in some of the coded language of his political rhetoric. Rand Paul subtracted the racial populism and his campaign failed. Donald Trump kept the populism, and subtracted the libertarianism; Trump is soaring. Face it, Republican voters are interested in identity politics and sticking it to immigrants, not an Austrian economics book club.
That interpretation is not entirely wrong. Donald Trump had a much easier time than Paul in connecting a set of unorthodox and radical policy proposals to an identifiable bloc of voters. But it is not the whole truth either. Donald Trump stole the dramatic role of dissenter from Rand Paul in this election cycle. It hurt Paul, and possibly humbled him.
But Senate careers generally outlast the careers of first-time populist presidential aspirants. Paul will be in our politics longer than Trump will. While Trump's coalition of potential voters is large enough to make a ruckus in this primary, they are older and not as civic-minded as the average party member. They may also be dying as a class of people. Trumpism is a backward looking movement, trying to salvage a class that has been ravaged by globalization.
Rand Paul's vision of a Republican future still has plenty of life in it. His imagined party reformation relies on a class of voters that is being created and shaped by globalization, a younger, more racially diverse GOP. They question the previous generation's law and order policies and the architecture of the American penal state. So does Paul. He has a long uphill climb, but he's already learning how to reach out to groups of citizens Republicans have basically abandoned.
There are other features of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era that the next generation may question. During the Obama presidency, much of liberal opinion has either reconciled themselves to the post-9/11 American warfare–surveillance state, or has simply fallen silent about it. Rand Paul is the most visible figure in American politics who is searching for a way to reconcile the power and reach of a modern technology-armed security state with the inherited traditions of privacy and personal freedom in American society and law.
Paul's unique foreign policy, a meeting of realism and non-interventionism, will also be called upon to play a role in the future life of American politics. It reconnects American policy thinking to lost or abandoned traditions of foreign engagement. And America will need an alternative as the Bush-Obama consensus of toppling regimes in the Middle East continues to produce chaos in that region and operating bases for international terrorists.
Paul's supporters may face their own temptation after this cycle as well. Having failed to generate as much excitement as previous Paulite runs, they may worry that they need to return to the more stern, radical, and abstract libertarianism of think tanks like the Mises Institute. Or perhaps they may just give up on practical electoral politics altogether, having concluded that the American people have been too corrupted for the cause of liberty. Or they may be tempted by more radical voices on the populist right. I believe each of these courses would be a mistake.
Paul's emergence in the Senate has already opened up the debate in Washington on a number of issues. More opinion-leaders and think-tankers on the right find themselves agreeing with his libertarian ideas now than they did eight years ago. Or at least, they are more willing to listen. That's an accomplishment that Paul can build on over time. "Brushfires of liberty were ignited, and those will carry on, as will I," said Paul, upon his exit.
That's exactly the right attitude. His party and his country will need him.