This has been the week of articles painting a dismal portrait of Rand Paul's presidential campaign. His polling has slipped since the last time I wrote about this topic and his fundraising numbers, including super PACs, have been a major letdown.
Disappointed libertarians are starting to speak out about these struggles, some lamenting that Paul hasn't been libertarian enough while others note that he hasn't recaptured the excitement of his father Ron Paul's Republican presidential campaigns.
The younger Paul's greatest successes have come when he has been able to identify issues that simultaneously galvanize the younger libertarians inspired by his father and older Tea Party conservatives, usually at the expense of President Obama and the Democrats.
A good example is when Paul got certifiably mainstream Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Jerry Moran, and even hawks like Marco Rubio, to participate in his filibuster over drones, as a proxy for discussing extrajudicial killings by government.
For a variety of reasons, Paul has struggled to replicate that success this year. Libertarians were happy that he forced the expiration of Patriot Act provisions that were about to sunset, but he had fewer traditional Republicans on his side than when he stood against drones. Libertarians generally don't mind his moves to defund Planned Parenthood — they're against taxpayer funding of most things and the Pauls have made libertarians more pro-life — but it excites conservatives more.
When at least 10 Republicans take the debate stage Thursday, it would be a mistake for Paul to try to resolve this dilemma by diluting his own distinctive brand. Nevertheless, libertarians who think the only problem is that Paul hasn't been interesting or libertarian enough are mistaking a symptom for the cause.
Donald Trump's rapid rise is one of many reasons to suspect the broader Republican primary electorate isn't ready for a "generation-shifting campaign." Paul is competing for the conservative vote against candidates like Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and to a lesser extent candidates like Scott Walker and Rubio who seldom tell Fox News-watching, talk radio-listening grassroots conservatives who vote in Republican primaries anything they don't want to hear.
Criminal justice reform may be a safer issue than, say, breaking with fellow Republicans on foreign policy because it is easier to find conservatives who are on board. But it does involve challenging the views many Republicans hold on things like Ferguson, and being portrayed as soft on crime is not exactly a risk-free proposition in a Republican primary.
The groups where Paul is under-performing relative to other conservative, non-establishment candidates for the 2016 nomination are older Republican voters, evangelicals and Southerners. Even the poll that purported to show 30 percent of Ron Paul's 2012 Iowa delegates standing with candidates other than Rand this time around mainly had the defectors going to Cruz and Walker, both Republicans who are more conventionally conservative and interventionist than Paul.
The main reason to have any optimism that Paul can outperform his father in the primaries is that his favorability ratings among Republicans and conservatives, while slipping, are much higher. Not only do majorities of conservative Republicans view him favorably, but the percentage of Republicans open to supporting him and who would be content with his nomination is higher than it was for his father at any point — and in fact higher than for front-running 2016 Republicans Trump and Jeb Bush.
Insufficient libertarian activist enthusiasm may be a bigger factor in the lack of fundraising success, though the jury it still out on what Ed Crane and Matt Kibbe will be able to do for Paul. But there were libertarians, especially anarcho-capitalists, not sold on Paul as far back as when I wrote my 2010 Reason profile of him before he won Kentucky's Republican senatorial primary.
Nevertheless, the path for electoral success for libertarian-leaning Republicans has generally been to win the support of economic and social conservatives while isolating national security hawks. That's how Paul beat Trey Grayson in Kentucky and it's a factor in the victories of Republican congressmen like Justin Amash and Thomas Massie.
Even Gary Johnson, the least "right-wing" of the prominent libertarians to get elected as a Republican, was more operationally aligned with social conservatives — including pro-lifers — when he was winning gubernatorial races than as a Libertarian Party candidate, where getting over 1 million votes out of some 118 million cast is considered a success.
Libertarians too often ignore how much Ron Paul appealed to conservatives in his successful campaigns. The elder Paul was elected to Congress 12 times, including three wins as a non-incumbent. He represented congressional districts that voted for presidential candidates like George W. Bush and John McCain. His successor after his first long stint in the House was Tom DeLay.
Ron Paul was arguably more critical of arms control treaties with the Soviets than Rand has been of the nuclear deal with Iran. His political inner circle included not just libertarians, but also social conservatives who had supported Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. His 1996 campaign manager said that while Ron opposed the Persian Gulf War he "fully supported our effort once the war was underway" and you can bet his early support of Ronald Reagan was emphasized over his later criticisms (except by Paul's Republican opponents).
The entire 2016 field has been unsettled by Trump, who has risen at the expense of nearly every leading candidate except for Bush. And even Bush is under-performing compared to past establishment candidates. But it's not clear that this dynamic, like Trump's current momentum, will last forever. It's too early to be writing political obituaries.
Maybe the liberty movement needed a transitional candidate between the two Pauls, or at least between father's campaigns to educate voters about libertarianism and the son's more conventional political approach. But we're not that far removed from equally premature pieces calling the Kentucky senator the GOP front-runner.
Rand Paul needs to be true to himself if he is going to stand out, and he can't be seen as equivocating or flip-flopping. But there also needs to be some realism about the Republican primary electorate as it is in 2015-16, not just how young libertarians wish it will be in the future.