There was nothing all that unusual about the latest announcement of presidential candidacy. 2012 Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, once the Republican governor of New Mexico, will again pursue his new party’s nomination. He will come with some fresh notoriety as the former CEO of Cannabis Sativa, a “Nevada-based marijuana products and licensing company,” as Politico describes it.
But Johnson’s announcement probably marks the sad realization of many libertarians that the mainstream political breakthrough, or “moment” (as Robert Draper put it in a much discussed New York Times Magazine feature in August 2014), they had hoped for isn’t happening. That’s because the presidential campaign of the supposed vehicle for that breakthrough, Senator Rand Paul, has made even Jeb Bush’s effort look effervescent.
It’s instructive to compare Senator Paul’s standing right now to that of his father — supposedly marginalized by his eccentric congressional record, unsavory associations, and peculiar obsessions — at this point in 2012. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Rand Paul is currently running seventh nationally with 3 percent. Twenty-six days from the first votes in 2012, Ron Paul was running fourth nationally with just under 10 percent. In Iowa, Rand Paul is tied for seventh place with 2.6 percent. Ron Paul was tied for second place with 17.4 percent at this point in 2012. And in New Hampshire, supposedly a very libertarian friendly jurisdiction, Rand Paul is in ninth place with 3.8 percent. In 2012 at this juncture, Ron Paul was in third place with 14.5 percent.
The whole premise of the Draper piece was that Rand Paul had taken the old man’s creed and modified it enough to make it acceptable to mainstream Republican audiences, while potentially adding some independent and even Democratic voters to an old white GOP base badly in need of new recruits. Instead, he seems to have lost some of the old magic of the Revolution, and more than a few voters.
It’s probably too early for a complete postmortem of Paul ’16, but one theory is that Rand sold his birthright for a mess of hypothetical pottage that was ultimately worthless. Libertarians, not the most compromise-prone political tribe, may be happier to go into the general election with Johnson, who lets his freak flag fly.