Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Libertarian Moment That Wasn't

Poor Lindsey Graham. It turns out he didn't have to bother running for president after all. The much anticipated "GOP's libertarian moment" never materialized. Rand Paul's presidential campaign is in free fall. Graham's visions of challenging Rand on foreign policy during a debate also failed to materialize as the long serving Senator from South Carolina could not muster enough polling strength to make it to the prime time stage. But Graham is still trying to make himself useful but attacking the latest threat to the GOP establishment: Donald Trump.  Say what you will about Lindsey, he is a reliable foot soldier for the DC status quo.

Whatever "libertarian moment" the GOP was having was over the moment James Foley's beheading hit the headlines. As a self-professed expert in national security matters, Graham should have known that raging against the NSA, the Patriot Act enjoys support only as long as the threat of terrorism seems remote. He should have known that ISIS'  brutality would jar Republican primary voters back to the reality that Islamic terrorism continues to threaten our security. In other words, Senator Graham should have realized that his rationale for seeking the presidency evaporated the moment the menacing figure of Jihadi John appeared on American computer screens.

Given the unpredictability of the current presidential season, it may be premature to write off the Rand campaign. Although whenever a candidate starts berating voters and telling them to "wake up" it is a clear sign that they are heading for the exit door. The latest attempt by Rand to bring up his poll numbers is to attack Donald Trump as a "fake conservative". Another sign that a campaign is in its final death throes. Perhaps, Rand will fare better than Rick Perry and Lindsey Graham who also employed the same tactic. Perhaps... but my money is on Trump.

Rand began his quest for the White House by declaring he would transform the Republican Party. He would bring younger and minority voters into a dying GOP coalition. Lofty but unoriginal goals. Every cycle we have candidates vowing to bring new voters into the Republican Party. There seems to be a belief among many Republican strategists that there are millions of younger and minority voters just itching to join the GOP if only the right candidate comes along. If only the party gets serious about its outreach to minority communities. If only we had a different kind of GOP candidate. 

What went wrong? To begin with, relying on young voters to carry a Republican candidate to victory is not a viable strategy. It is wishful thinking. Progressive Democrats can rely on such a strategy simply because younger voters historically have voted for progressive Democrats by large margins. Driving up the numbers of younger voters will automatically benefit the liberal Democrat whether his name is Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders.

To his credit, Rand made good on his pledge to be a different kind of Republican. He campaigned where no Republican has gone for decades, if not ever. Places like Howard University. He made criminal justice reform a central issue of his campaign. Spoke about the legacy of racism and other themes barely, if ever, mentioned by other Republicans.

Unfortunately for Rand,  Bernie Sanders decided to seek the Democratic nomination. Sanders matched Rand on civil liberties, race  and war while upping the ante by also offering free college tuition and other federal programs that enjoy wide support among minority voters. Fighting for liberty sounds great but it doesn't pay the bills.

Seeing that his unconventional themes were not resulting in strong poll numbers, Rand reverted to the traditional Republican attack on the tax code. The perennial call to abolish the IRS. He released a video asking voters what would be the best way to kill the tax code. Fire, woodchipper or chainsaw? Unfortunately for Rand, the voters he is reaching out to don't have a tax problem. They have a student debt problem. They have an income problem. 

Not only has Rand failed to bring new voters to his cause, he has lost ground with this father's supporters. He is way behind the pack in both Iowa and New Hampshire where is father  finished third and second respectively. But this too is not surprising. Ron Paul's following had a large contingent of voters vehemently opposed to foreign aid to Israel and neo-confederates who still insist that the Civil War was not about slavery. Some even despise Lincoln. A quick perusal of old Ron Paul newsletters and it is obvious that Rand's decision to support aid to Israel and talk of racial injustice would alienate his father's fans.

Four months into his presidential campaign, Rand has managed to lose his father's supporters and failed to bring in new voters. With poll numbers collapsing, weak fundraising, Rand Paul has decided to skip the Iowa State Fair and leave the country on a medical mission in Haiti. Perhaps this trip is just a coincidence and has nothing to do with his struggling presidential campaign. In any case, Labor Day is fast approaching and Rand Paul will need to make a decision as to whether to still pursue the White House or focus on keeping his Senate seat. The wrong decision could result in Rand leaving DC altogether and the talk of the GOP's libertarian moment will be little more than a distant memory.