The libertarian moment never came.
On Wednesday, two days after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Rand Paul announced that he was dropping out of the presidential race. On Wednesday morning, he told his staff he thought about it on the flight back and determined he had no path to the nomination.
“It’s been an incredible honor to run a principled campaign for the White House,” Paul said in a statement. “Today, I will end where I began, ready and willing to fight for the cause of Liberty.”
Rand Paul was supposed to be a more electable version of his father, Ron Paul, a libertarian who ran for president in 2008 and 2012. It was thought that Rand could harness his father’s “liberty” movement to become a truly modern candidate, one who could broaden the appeal of the Republican Party—to a younger and more diverse audience—with his message of small government and individual freedom.
But in an effort to market that message in a way that didn’t alienate mainstream Republicans, Rand Paul lost his individuality.
And then the country lost interest.
A source close to the campaign said that dropping out now, before the primary in New Hampshire—the “live free or die” state where Paul, who polls there at 2.8 percent, should have theoretically found a home for his libertarian-leaning views—is “the right thing to do.”
Paul is hoping his exit will help the Republican Party regain control of its nominating process which, since the summer, has been a crowded, runaway train conducted by a former reality TV star.
Paul finished with just 4.5 percent of the vote in Iowa, despite the fact that he’d been campaigning there since well before he was actually a candidate. Paul began making trips to the state almost as soon as he was elected to the Senate, as a means of testing the waters for his eventual White House bid.
“We had hoped for a large student turnout,” the source said, “and it just didn’t happen.”
On Monday afternoon, ahead of the caucuses, Paul was in his Des Moines headquarters with his wife, Kelly, and his father.
Rand wore his signature campaign uniform of blue jeans, a blue blazer, and clunky brown shoes. He looked nervous.
He stood in front of a few hundred volunteers in the hot, windowless space and told them, “I don’t know if you saw, but there’s a new poll out today that tried to compare cellphones to landlines, and age 30 and under, we were number one.”
They cheered, and then they chanted, “President Paul!”
Paul tried to assure them that their work wasn’t a waste of time. “We’re gonna do very well,” he said, “we’re gonna beat a lot of people in the race. I think there is a chance we can win.”
Not even 48 hours later, he knew that chance had been blown.
Paul was elected to represent Kentucky in the U.S. Senate during the Tea Party wave of 2010. In 2011, he released a book capitalizing on the movement, The Tea Party Goes To Washington. But as the Tea Party’s relevance faded, Paul increasingly focused on the “liberty” cause founded by his father.
He built his brand, aided by a 13-hour filibuster over U.S. drone policy during the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the CIA, and he started acting like a presidential candidate. To further distinguish himself from conventional Republicans, he picked fights with neoconservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham on foreign policy. He attached himself to the bipartisan-friendly cause of criminal justice reform, eventually teaming up with Cory Booker, a popular young Democratic senator from New Jersey, to introduce legislation on the issue.
He started traveling to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. And he started talking in circles, the way politicians with big plans do.
By the fall of 2014, in the void before the primaries, Paul was enjoying a period of intense interest from the media. No other politician was so actively stoking speculation that he might run for president the way Paul was. And for giving us something to talk about, he was rewarded with attention.
The New York Times asked if Paul’s ascent meant that “the libertarian moment” had finally arrived. Time magazine called him “the most interesting man in politics” on its cover. He was profiled by The New Yorker and Vogue.
As Philip Bump noted in The Washington Post, “He led the Real Clear Politics polling average for nearly half of the days in 2014.”
But all of the hype came too soon, and he couldn’t sustain it.
As other candidates began to command the spotlight and interest in Paul started to wane, he tried to regain his standing by making himself all things to all people.
He rebranded his foreign policy “conservative realism,” an attempt to distance himself from his loopy, isolationist father. And rather than sound a skeptical note in response to the rise of ISIS and calls for another war, he supported a bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. He signed the Iran Letter, an open letter penned by Sen. Tom Cotton, designed to halt negotiations with Iran. Until that point, Paul had been for negotiations.
The result of all of this tap dancing was that he angered his more-libertarian supporters and he didn’t convince any of his skeptics to change their minds.
By the time Paul formally announced his candidacy, in April of 2015, he no longer looked like a savior.
And all of this was before the rise of Donald Trump.
“He trimmed his sails and he didn’t have to,” Justin Raimondo, the co-founder of Antiwar.com and a Paul fan-turned-critic, told me Wednesday. “Especially in this year, when people are looking for authenticity, he was a little too calculating.”
Raimondo was disappointed in Paul, like many libertarians were.
“He’s not his father, and that’s his big problem,” he said. “The Paul campaign committed suicide.”
The tragedy of Rand is that he didn’t even come close to doing as well as Ron, who garnered 21.4 percent in Iowa in 2012.
On a call with reporters Wednesday morning, Doug Stafford, a senior adviser to the campaign, said that ultimately two things proved fatal to the senator: Trump, who he called “a larger-than-life outsider,” and the interventionist foreign policy favored by most of the other candidates.
There was, he said, “a climate in which an overwhelming number of people on the stage were rushing to outdo themselves to have a more rash foreign policy.” Lost in that jingoistic pandemonium was Paul, who never sold out completely. His foreign policy, even at its most compromised, was nuanced—too nuanced to make much sense on the debate stage.
Stafford said that nobody could’ve predicted how this primary would have turned out, and anyone who says any differently is “telling a fib.”
Surely Paul himself didn’t think it would end this way, or end this soon.
During his April 7 announcement in Louisville, he said, “If we nominate a candidate who is simply Democrat-lite, what’s the point? Why bother?”