Back in April 2015, Senator Rand Paul announced his presidential campaign with the hope that voters were hungry for change in the Republican Party. His announcement speech, littered with words like “liberty” and “new,” began with this message: “We have come to take our country back.”
Paul was right. Americans were frustrated and looking for someone who didn’t talk about politics like all of those others who came before. However, they weren’t necessarily looking for someone who talked about civil liberties, and they definitely didn’t seem interested in someone who was eager to open up the Republican Party to a far more diverse crowd, or intent on appealing to young people by talking about privacy, selling cornhole sets, and holding karaoke fundraisers.
Two months after Paul’s speech, it became clear that the new voice disaffected Americans were heeding was that of Donald Trump, a man who provides no compass for how the GOP could survive in the future, as his political compass always points toward himself. After his second-place finish in Iowa on Monday night — attracting more caucus supporters than anyone else in history besides Ted Cruz — Trump told his supporters, “This is the day we take our country back.” People cheered.
Just 4.5 percent of caucus attendees sided with Paul; on Wednesday, he announced that he was suspending his presidential campaign, just before the New Hampshire primary, where Paul is polling at around 3 percent. Back in the summer, the senator had said that winning the state, with its libertarian-friendly leanings, was a necessity.
Just like Paul planned on doing, Trump attracted a whole pool of people who had never voted for the Republican Party — or any party — in a long time. Those voters weren’t united by their youth or diversity, but rather by being older conservatives who had never been interested in politics or voting until someone with no political experience echoed the vague and angry thoughts they had been feeling for years. The biggest opportunity for growth in the Republican Party, at least in 2016, didn’t come from places where the GOP has been ceding ground to Democrats, but instead from places where Republicans knew they had support — even though these voters never bothered making things official by filling out a ballot.
Even if there were 2016 voters enamored with the Kentucky senator’s politics — the libertarian rubric championed by his father, Ron, who told the young’uns who liked him that the government has always stupidly solved problems by walking six miles uphill both ways, softened by a belief that strongly held views must be tempered when hunting for an electoral win — this wasn’t a year designed to showcase them at their best angle.
In a primary dominated by candidates trying to render the most terrifying picture of ISIS possible, as well as positioning themselves as the only antidote to that apocalypse, a man pausing to consider the Rube Goldbergian chain of events that can stem from war and an over-reactionary foreign policy didn’t stand a chance. The fact that Paul’s foreign policy beliefs could sometimes look like a well-muddled julep of calls for more and less defense spending didn’t make it any easier.
Like with Ron Paul, plenty of people also didn’t seem quite sure what to make of Rand Paul. Coverage of Rand has been dominated by the word “interesting,” which seems like a desperate adjective to use when you can’t think of anything nicer to say but aren’t in a situation where it’s better to say nothing at all.
Even though he never caught on, those issues that he cares about most did starkly cast Paul as an avatar of everything that the Republican Party currently lacks during debates. While everyone else fought to adorn the same beliefs with the most compelling adjectives, Paul would interject and spark fights, highlighting compelling differences in policy. In a debate in Iowa last week, he was asked about policing. Paul responded with thoughts on unfair fines and mass incarceration. “Drug use is about equal between white and black, but our prisons, three out of four people in prison are black or brown,” he said. “I think something has to change. I think it's a big thing that our party needs to be part of.”
None of the moderators thought it would be a good idea to ask any of his opponents about this topic; it seems very possible that the issue will evaporate from debates completely now that he’s gone from the race.
Paul now returns to life in the Senate, a land where iconoclasts can thrive and hone their chops until their moment has come. (Just ask Bernie Sanders.) If Paul wants to continue pissing off his coworkers and going viral with filibusters, however, he’ll have to win reelection this year and a Democratic challenger just entered the Senate race last week.
If Paul does carry on in Congress, there’s no reason to believe that this failed election bid will be his last. Thanks to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the Republican Party will still be fretting about how it will ever appeal to young and minority voters in 2020. And Paul is only 53. His dad was in his seventies during his last presidential campaign, a campaign in which he managed to convey his entire ideology through a GIF-size hand gesture. This isn’t the last time we’ve seen Rand Paul roll his eyes at the rest of his party.