Observing the Trump administration take shape alongside a regrouping Democratic Party, we can see a clear opportunity for Libertarians to seize the initiative.
Donald Trump has pledged to make the GOP the new “party of the working class”; rejecting much of the traditional pro-market and pro-business points of view his adopted party hold.
Meanwhile Democrats seem intent to double down on left-wing progressivism, at the expense of the liberal views on trade and social issues that they’ve championed since the 1990s.
If Hillary Clinton had won the election, Democrats would have probably returned the centrist mold of the previous Clinton era; and the Republican establishment, would have reasserted control over their party gone rogue.
Donald Trump did win however, and because of that everything has changed.
What Trump’s unexpected victory (and the corresponding transformation of the American political landscape) means is that both parties are moving toward a more authoritarian, more economically interventionist, political position; leaving the market-friendly, individualist field wide open for the taking.
There are still many people in this country who believe in open markets, global partnerships, individual liberty, and economic freedom – they will need a voice. The Libertarian Party needs to be that voice.
To succeed in the next presidential contest (even with all the political upheaval clearing a path) we need a candidate who can eloquently defend our principles, inspire current and potential activists, and present a credible alternative to both Donald Trump, and whoever the Democrats nominate.
Rand Paul is who we need in 2020.
Bouncing Back from 2016
Many libertarians and Libertarians were excited when Rand Paul announced he would run for President in 2016. It made sense for him to run in the Republican primary, he is a Republican senator after all, and had to be able to fall back on the senate race if the primary did not go well.
As the campaign wore on however, many people were upset by Paul’s softening on his libertarianism. He presented a different message from Ron Paul (his ex-congressman father) who dominated the “libertarian lane” in the 2008 and 2012 GOP primaries. Veterans of Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 bids were not pleased with the younger Paul’s more open attitude toward trade agreements, international institutions, and America’s active role in the world.
Aside from those aspects Rand Paul did present a genuinely libertarian message; one that could resonate with the broader American public in a way Paul peer’s never could.
He articulated a vision of an American government that was genuinely smaller, and could once again put faith in the states to act on behalf of their citizens.
Unfortunately, there was such a crowded field (a field dominated by an out-sized personality in Donald Trump) that it was a challenge for Rand Paul to make any headway in the primary.
Trying to run as a Republican limited his appeal among the class of primary voters who craved a conservative authoritarian to take over in Washington.
He was ultimately squeezed out due to twin factors: not selling what an enraged GOP base wanted to buy, and lacking the necessary media and funding attention to give his campaign oxygen.
As a Libertarian however, Rand Paul could dominate the field, and get into a general election in which a broader electorate will be far friendlier to what he is selling. If he runs in 2020, he will get a far bigger piece of the action.
Rand the Libertarian
It is worth taking a moment to address the question of whether we want Rand Paul to be our (Libertarian) nominee; is he even a libertarian?
A third-party candidate can be one of two things: they can be a completely pure activist with wide support from the hard core, or they can be a credible political figure who voters can see as a viable presidential alternative.
We could nominate someone like Austin Petersen, who is a libertarian activist, and well known in the tight subculture of libertarianism. Yet Petersen has no governing experience, and only limited business experience.
He may serve red meat to the movement’s core, but will have virtually no appeal outside of it.
It seems clear from his voting record, his speeches, his writings, and his actions that Rand Paul is definitely a libertarian; he’s certainly more of a libertarian than Gary Johnson, showing more skepticism toward a litany of government programs than did our 2016 nominee.
Rand Paul has always been a somewhat uncomfortable fit for the GOP. His support for marijuana use, his opposition to bottomless military budgets, and his steadfast defense of civil liberties in the face of opposition from both the Obama administration and his own party, show him to be a man who wears the Republican label as a convenience. He is not a member of that tribe at all.
Indeed, Paul’s promises to fight the nomination of neoconservative war-hawks like John Bolton (should Bolton be nominated as Secretary of State) already puts him at odds with a party that seems largely to have surrendered to the Trump agenda.
With Jeff Sessions already nominated to be the next Attorney General , Rand Paul will undoubtedly be fighting to defend the use of marijuana and the rights of the states to legalize it.
Going into 2020, we will have an authoritarian conservative and (almost certainly) an authoritarian leftist as the nominees for our two major parties. We need someone who can present an anti-authoritarian message that will resonate with free market conservatives, social liberals, and individualists across the spectrum. Rand Paul can do that. Whether he meets every criteria of party purity should be of little consequence to us – if we believe it is worth seizing this historic opportunity.
The Presidential Credibility Test
When voters choose between candidates, they are guided by a few heuristics. There are obvious ones like assessing experience (though as we’ve seen, that one can be a double-edged sword in years when voters want an outsider) but the one heuristic that dominates the American political universe, is the rule of the two main parties.
In survey after survey, respondents claim to be dissatisfied with having only two chief candidates to choose from, yet further surveys, and analysis of actual voter behavior, shows that there is a profound psychological barrier to ultimately voting for a third-party candidate.
The dominant perception is that a vote for anything other than a Democrat or a Republican is a “wasted vote”. I explained before the 2016 election, that the nature of the electoral college results in a presidential election hinging on only a few key swing states. Because of this, a vote for an alternative candidate in non-swing states, would not affect the outcomes – but would move the needle in the direction of an alternative.
Despite that simple logic, voters continue to overwhelmingly support the two major parties, even when both candidates are incredibly unpopular.
Because of this psychological block, any third-party candidate hoping to succeed must pass a credibility test in the eyes of voters, one that is certainly more rigorous than that imposed on Republican or Democrat candidates. This was evident in the case of Gary Johnson this past election. Just as he was beginning to make some headway in the polls and get some traction in the media, Johnson would “nuke himself“ on live television.
An example of this was when he demonstrated that he did not know what Aleppo was. The former governor then further undermined himself when shortly after the “Aleppo incident” he failed to name a single foreign leader whom he respected or admired.
Now, some libertarians cried foul at this treatment of Johnson and quickly pointed out (quite accurately) that knowledge of Aleppo didn’t stop Hillary Clinton from engaging in a foreign policy that helped create the Syrian crisis; and that Donald Trump didn’t know the difference between the Kurds (an ethnic group in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, currently allied with the United States in the fight against Islamic State) and the Quds Force (Iran’s foreign special operations group, specializing in unconventional warfare).
Unfortunately, these sorts of responses do not work. It seems that simply having the brand of a Democrat or Republican is, in-itself, a shield against disqualifying misadventure or an assumed lack of knowledge. They are already legitimate because those parties’ candidates have always been legitimate. When voters look at a third party or independent candidate, they do not see automatic legitimacy. They need to be convinced of it; and that means having not only a clear message, but a deep understanding of the issues and facts at hand.
It may be unfair, but it is the reality we must work with.
Rand Paul: Credible Alternative
The beauty of a Rand Paul run in 2020 is that he already effectively overcomes many of the barriers to a third-party candidate’s legitimacy. He is already a national figure whose views are well known. He is a sitting, respected senator who stands up for a heterodox policy menu that does not comfortably fit in either of the main political tribes.
He has a deep knowledge of economic, national security, and foreign policy issues. And since he is currently serving in elected office, he holds a fresh mandate from the people. As the Libertarian nominee, he would undoubtedly attract even more attention.
He can attract the same activist networks Gary Johnson built (supplemented with his own substantial organizational and donor networks) to build an operation better funded and better run than any in Libertarian Party history.
The Narrow Path to Victory
Trump may keep some market-friendly Republicans with his promises of slashing income and capital gains taxes. But anyone thinking more than a few years ahead will recognize that such cuts, coupled with massive new outlays toward infrastructure, military, and entitlements expenditure, will serve only to drive us into a spiral of debt from which we may never recover.
Somewhat fortunately, America’s position as the lynchpin of the global economic order, and the dollar’s position as the only credible world reserve currency, will insulate us from true catastrophe – for a while!
However, it is still an utterly unsustainable prescription for the economy. Libertarians must drive that message home. After all, Trump himself made public debt a major talking point in his clash with Hillary Clinton.
A strong Libertarian candidate, with a carefully calibrated message, could see Trump hoist with his own petard.
Rand Paul however, can tap into that massive middle ground of American politics; those ordinary people who don’t like tyranny of any stripe.
He can present a pro-individualist, pro-market, and pro-liberty agenda that will stand in stark contrast to either of the opponents he would face.
That differentiation, coupled with Rand Paul’s name recognition, should easily propel him into the presidential debates, where he will be able to present his alternative prescriptions for America’s future.
In a divided country with three strong candidates it is very hard to tell how the electoral map would play out. But by bringing together the various estranged tribes: from moderate Democrats to pro-market Republicans; Rand could build a winning coalition.
In our crazy electoral system, that could just be enough to get him into the Oval Office.
Rand could win, and he could change the course of American politics – Now all we need is for him to say “yes”!
This post was written by John Engle.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.
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