I am on-record predicting that Sen. Rand Paul's presidential campaign would fall well short of success. It’s an argument I’ve made early, repeatedly and, granted, with some measure of glee.
But now that Gov. Scott Walker has come out in opposition to the (somewhat toothless) National Security Agency reforms currently moving their way through Congress — joining every other legitimate GOP candidate and leaving Paul more isolated than ever — I must admit that even I am surprised by how bleak Paul’s future is beginning to look. Because it was premised on a series of fantasies and misconceptions, I always figured Paul’s campaign would falter. I just didn’t think its EKG would start beeping so frantically, so quick.
You could forgiven for not understanding why Walker’s acting like an ill-informed authoritarian — a.k.a., being Scott Walker — bodes so poorly for the Kentucky pseudo-libertarian. So here’s some necessary context.
When, after being elected to the Senate in 2010, Paul first started running for president, the country was in the midst of a full-blown freakout over the economy. And because American politics and media is dominated by the hyper-wealthy, the public’s anxiety over unemployment and stagnant wages was soon conflated with the elite’s longstanding desire to cut government spending and reduce the national debt. For a conservative like Paul, who’d spent the majority of the Bush years feeling alienated from and angry with the neoconservatism of the Republican Party, this shift of focus was extremely welcome.
The problem is, that was nearly five years ago. And while it certainly looks like Paul and his brain trust haven’t altered their view of the electorate too much in the intervening years, the reality is that things done changed. Thanks to a mix of austerity as well as an economy strong enough to keep growing despite that austerity, the deficit began to fall (it still is). And thanks to a falling unemployment rate, a few quarters of strong GDP growth and slowly rising wages, Americans stopped worrying about the deficit and the debt — which were never the cause of their own economic struggles to begin with, but whatever.
For the Republican Party in general, politically speaking, this was inconvenient — but not a disaster. Just as nature seeks to fill a vacuum, whichever party is not in control of the White House seeks to attack the president where he’s weakest. For Obama’s first term, that area was the economy; for his second term, it’s been foreign affairs. And since the GOP of the post-9/11 years has been much more effective at coming up with reasons to kill Muslim people than it has at fiscal stewardship, moving back to attacking Dems for being soft on terror was in many regards more comfortable, anyway.
For Paul, though, the story has been different. Because if a Rand Paul presidential campaign was going to be a real thing in a way his dad’s campaigns never were, it would require a political environment with “small government” issues front-and-center and “national security” issues pushed-off to the side. It’d require a GOP primary environment in which the name John Galt was much more resonant than, say, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Paul was never going to persuade the entire GOP caucus to become non-interventionist, of course. But he needed at least some of them to feel like domestic policy was so much more important that some foreign policy heresy could be accepted.
To put it gently, that is not the current situation Paul finds himself in. On the contrary, Paul now finds himself in a GOP with an ascendant neoconservative wing, one that is especially cocky because, despite being utterly discredited by the Bush years, it never truly lost its hold over the party overall. Instead of hitting the campaign trail to talk about liberty and innovation and Big Brother and states’ rights, Paul finds himself having to explain why, no, invading Iraq in 2003 was still not a good idea; and, no, the reason ISIS exists is not because President Obama wasn’t trigger-happy enough. It’s like he’s at a big Thanksgiving dinner and all anyone wants to talk about is religion and politics.
This isn’t the only reason why Paul is reportedly having a great deal of trouble raising money. But it’s definitely in the top five. And it places Paul in a lose-lose position; if he wants to simply stay afloat, he needs to raise money. In order to raise money, though, he needs to appeal to his base — and that means grandstanding on the very issues of surveillance and foreign policy that make him unpalatable to the rest of the GOP electorate to begin with. Worse still, because he’s such the odd-man-out, and because he’s the odd-man-out regarding policies central to many Republicans’ self-identity, he can’t reach out to his true believers quietly and without other high-profile conservatives’ notice.
What ends up happening, then, are scenarios like the one that unfolded recently with Paul’s pseudo-filibuster against renewal of the Patriot Act. He makes a big show of his opposition, gets media attention, and no doubt raises some money. He stays alive to fight the next day. But the cost is criticism from a dozen conservative outlets and articles calling him names, like an “Obama Republican.” More dangerous still, he has to dodge jingoist attacks from hawkish party leaders like Sen. John McCain, who argued that Paul cared more about his presidential campaign than the safety of the nation. If he defends himself too strongly, he’s not a “real” Republican; if he doesn’t, he lets himself almost be accused of treason.
It’s all so very predictable, about as unexpected as the Republican Party lining up behind the NSA, CIA and other arms of the national security state. It was so easy to see this coming, in fact, that you can’t help but wonder how Paul could have imagined it would play out any different. Then again, the line between fantasy and reality has, for Paul, always been a little fuzzy. Perhaps the better question is, what else could an informed observer expect?