Depending on whether Jeb Bush’s gilded campaign melts down by primary night in New Hampshire, the biggest disappointment of the cycle could be Rand Paul’s 2016 candidacy, which officially ended today. It has long been apparent that instead of serving as the bridge between the libertarian movement and the mainstream GOP, Rand managed to offend Liberty Movement bravos while retaining enough heterodox foreign-policy views to repel a Republican electorate newly galvanized into militarism by terrorism fears. And so after a dismal showing in Iowa, he’s retreating back to Kentucky to save his Senate seat.
It’s not just the mirage of a “libertarian moment” (to cite the headline in a much-quoted 2014 Robert Draper piece for The New York Times Magazine) that Paul’s unsuccessful effort dispelled. Yes, adherents of the True Capitalist Faith will have to retreat to their internecine quarrels in the cozy confines of the Libertarian Party they actually do control. But Republicans rejected more than Paul’s ideology: His strategy for expanding the Republican base by appealing to young people via civil-liberty themes and to African-Americans by frankly abandoning racial dog whistles fared no better than the Republican Establishment’s faith in comprehensive immigration reform as a game changer. Perhaps many Republicans think Marco Rubio by virtue of his age and ethnicity could at least mitigate losses among young people and minorities without sacrificing right-wing ideology. But for the most part the GOP is staking its 2016 prospects on mobilizing an angry base, attracting “missing” white voters who sat out 2012, bringing back the spirit of 2002 via terrorism fears, and hoping fatigue with Obama and Hillary Clinton will produce a Republican victory almost by default.
As for Paul himself, it’s ironic that the son and political heir of the candidate who carried his flag of Revolution all the way to the 2012 convention is folding his once-promising campaign so early. But his Senate seat remains the top trophy ever won by the sort-of-libertarian cause he represents, and risking that for the humiliation of falling short of the old man’s vote totals in state after state made no sense. He could perhaps run for president again in the future, but the fact remains that many true believers in the cause would prefer to retreat to the Galt’s Gulch of self-righteous isolation and treat Paul 2016 as a cautionary tale about compromising principles.