Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul announced today that he is dropping out of the race for president.
Paul finished fifth out of twelve at the Iowa caucuses, doubling the vote counts of some of his competitors who are still trudging along. But his 4.5 percent showing was a disappointment, and Paul is polling in the single digits in other states and nationally as well.
I would not want Paul to be president of the United States because I think his economic platform would be a disaster. But it was nice to have him in the race. He aggressively and cogently argued against the neoconservative fantasies of Marco Rubio, and against the juvenile posturing of Ted Cruz promising carpet bombing and nuking the Middle East (a promise, by definition, to slaughter and maim civilian men, women, and children). The staggering failures of Bush-era GOP foreign policy orthodoxy went unacknowledged but for Paul (and occasionally Donald Trump). It’s worth pointing out that for all of the clown-car nature of this race, the stakes here are that someone like Rubio could follow a bellicose foreign policy that leads to more human suffering and disaster for the United States.
Paul was also the only one in the supposedly freedom-loving Republican field who consistently made the argument for preserving civil liberties against the encroachments of the security state. He was the only one who consistently made the argument for desperately needed reforms to the criminal justice system, even as prominent Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton prepare to demagogue on the issue with the same tired old “tough on crime” rhetoric.
For all of these reasons, despite his many flaws, it’s a bit of a bummer that Paul won’t serve as a gadfly on stage anymore. But that’s the thing. Paul, unlike his pop, was actually hoping to win rather than just being a gadlfy. Most of the post mortems are concluding that was his problem. He tried to move to the mainstream, which alienated the Ron Paul fans without picking up enough mainstream support.
Then there’s the Donald. I suspect some of the pot-smoking, leave-me-alone types who turned out for Ron Paul in places like New Hampshire in years past are now backing Trump.
This quote (flagged by Dara Lind at Vox) from U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, a Paul ally, might be getting at something:
“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.”
There’s a subsection of Republican voters, in other words, who simply want to stick up their middle finger — and there might just be more of them than there are deeply committed, principled libertarians.
The truth is that none of the big ideas that were supposed to be part of a big showdown in this primary have gotten much traction — not Paul’s libertarianism or the Sam’s Club Republican idea peddled by reform conservatives like Ross Douthat at the New York Times. Instead it’s just been a circus of nativism, populist nationalism, free-floating anger at Obama and elites and the media, and nonsensical insult fests. Meanwhile, the candidate that the establishment may coalesce around, Rubio, offers an exact retread of George W. Bush: unfunded tax cuts and neoconservative adventuring.
Paul’s departure, and that of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, winnows the field down to ten (well, if you count Jim Gilmore, who got a total of twelve votes in the Iowa caucuses).
Paul will now focus on his re-election bid in Kentucky. He’s been under pressure from Republicans in the state to focus on that race because he has a strong Democratic challenger in Lexington Mayer Jim Gray. Both Paul and Rubio’s presidential campaigns could plausibly end up giving the Ds senate seats.