Who would have thought that Rand Paul would be a less successful presidential candidate than his father was?
Paul wasn't exactly a favorite for the Republican nomination. But he was supposed to build on the libertarian-leaning base his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, had accumulated during presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 — consolidating their support while reaching out to other sectors of the party.
Instead, he never met the levels of support — not to mention passion — that his father commanded.
In part, Paul's failure is the product of outside events — namely the rise of ISIS, which turned the Republican base's foreign policy preferences away from Paul-style non-interventionism.
He also failed to gain traction because the political strategy that Paul seems most interested in is broadening the appeal of the Republican Party to African-Americans and young people — and it's hard to win a primary by appealing to voters who aren't currently members of your party.
But mostly, the failure of Rand Paul, especially in comparison with his more successful competitors, demonstrates that the theory behind Rand Paul's candidacy was fundamentally flawed. The part of Ron Paul's candidacies that his son tried not to replicate — his economic protectionism and outspoken-bordering-on-kooky persona — turned out to be the things Republican voters liked most.
Rand Paul got the Republican Party wrong
From the time Rand Paul first ran for Senate in 2010, he was assumed to be interested in running for president. Sure, the same could be said of any young senator. But for political observers, who were used to the cranky outspokenness of Ron Paul, Rand Paul's relatively mainstream persona — calmer, more diplomatic, and more moderate than his father — was a big clue that he was grooming himself for a presidential run.
The contrast between Ron and Rand Paul is one that Paul allies themselves have encouraged. In 2014, Paul staffer Jesse Benton told the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza that "Ron was always content to tell the truth as best he understood it, and he saw that as the point of his politics. Rand is the guy who is committed to winning." (In 2015, Benton and an associate were charged with fraud over an allegation they'd bribed an Iowa state senator in the 2012 presidential race; they were acquitted, but Benton has not been rehired by the Rand Paul campaign.)
In 2012, or even 2014, this made sense. Ron Paul's presidential campaigns had clearly struck a nerve with a segment of the Republican base; they had also, just as clearly, turned off the Republican Party establishment, who wasn't interested in a candidate who ranted about NAFTA and wanted to spend less on defense. It seemed totally logical that a candidate could build a coalition by keeping the substance of Ron Paul's views but expressing them in a way that sounded less terrifying to GOP elites.
The 2016 Republican primary, however, has been led for several months by the economically protectionist and outspoken-bordering-on-kooky Donald J. Trump. The only viable challenge to Trump, at this point, comes from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who's amassed a reputation as a rigid ideologue — and, possibly, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who's winning the establishment support Paul was never going to get.
Paul, on the other hand, never managed to drum up much support among Republican voters — including among self-identified libertarians, whom Cruz assiduously courted under Paul's nose.
That suggests a totally different hypothesis: that the things mainstream Republicans most hated about Ron Paul were the same things that made voters support him.
Paul supporter Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) was also first elected in 2010. But last October, he told a group of local voters that he was reconsidering what really motivated the voters who put him and Rand Paul in Congress:
"I’m thinking, ‘Wow, the American public really seems to like these Libertarian ideas,’ and then Donald Trump runs and he gets all of their (Rand Paul and Ron Paul) voters, he gets all of my voters. I’m thinking, ‘No, they’re just voting for the craziest guy in the race,’" he said and the audience laughed. "It was very sobering for me. I’m that guy."
Republicans ran away from national security dovishness — and so did Paul
That's not to say that Rand Paul has turned himself into a clone of, say, senior Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. There are issues on which Paul, as a senator, has been vocally iconoclastic.
The most famous moment of his Senate career — and the one that arguably launched his presidential campaign, even though he wouldn't declare for another two years — was his nearly 13-hour filibuster in early 2013 over the Obama administration's hypothetical use of drones to kill citizens suspected of terrorism on US soil, as well as domestic surveillance of American citizens.
Paul was joined by more conventional Republicans (including Ted Cruz) whose main complaint with the practice was that Obama was the one making the policy. But Paul's critique was consistent: The Constitution required due process of law, and national security didn't trump the Constitution.
It looked like there was growing support within the Republican Party for reining in domestic surveillance and foreign military interventionism. In 2015, a bipartisan coalition led by Paul managed to force the expiration of some key provisions of the Patriot Act authorizing surveillance — then reinstituted them as part of a bill that placed stricter conditions on their use.
But while surveillance reform gained traction on Capitol Hill, neither it nor Paul's non-interventionist foreign policy managed to get much of anywhere on the campaign trail. Paul's foreign policy iconoclasm served him well in the debates, where his one-on-ones with Chris Christie and other hawks created most of his campaign's best moments. But the excitement didn't extend beyond the debate stage.
Why? Well, for one thing, the Republican Party of 2016 is swinging back toward hawkishness. The rise of ISIS (and its turn toward terrorism as shown by the Paris attacks of November 2015) has made voters more interested in bombing other countries and spying on American immigrants.
Put another way, Lindsey Graham — the most hawkish candidate in the 2016 GOP field — dropped out in December 2015 because he'd already won the debate within his party. Rand Paul is dropping out now, in part, because he's lost.
But it's also true that Paul didn't play up the differences between himself and the party all that much. He's been just as hostile toward the Iran nuclear deal as other candidates — upsetting some longtime Paul family supporters. And while Paul has never been libertarian on immigration, his rush to ban immigration from certain countries in November certainly didn't distinguish him from other Republican presidential candidates.
The long game: Can Rand Paul remake the Republican Party?
The most important difference between Rand Paul and the rest of the Republican field — and the one that might matter the most in the long run — isn't about policy at all. It's about politics.
Rand Paul was one of only a few candidates in the 2016 Republican primary who talked explicitly about the need to broaden the party's appeal. And he was the only one to suggest that the Republican Party should start by reaching out to young people and African Americans.
Both of these constituencies are tied closely to issues where Paul is outside the Republican mainstream: His pitch to young voters is largely in support of privacy and tech regulation, and his pitch to black voters is grounded in his opposition to mass incarceration and support of police reform.
At his most intriguing, Paul has been interested in outreach to young and (especially) black voters that goes beyond the simple declaration of, "Hey, I agree with your issue." He's opened up offices in heavily black neighborhoods. He's spoken to the National Urban League.
If Rand Paul just wanted to be a voice against domestic surveillance for the rest of his career, he could easily do it from the United States Senate. The best argument for him as a presidential candidate was that he had a vision for what the Republican Party ought to be, and maybe running for president would give him enough of a platform to start putting that vision into place five, 10, or 20 years down the road.
But it was always hard to imagine how Paul would do this during a Republican primary, which is about winning over the voters the party already has. And his attempts to appeal to primary voters by dissing the Black Lives Matter movement might have done more to hurt his relationship with African Americans than anything he did as a candidate helped.
Now that Paul has dropped out of the primary, he doesn't need to appeal to those voters anymore — barring a last-minute primary challenge when he runs for reelection in the Senate, of course. The question is whether Rand Paul is still interested enough in the Republican Party to invest in broadening its coalition — and whether, under the standard of a Trump or Cruz, such outreach will even be possible.