During the long winter nights when Ron Paul and his boisterous supporters were raising hell in caucus states, one of the regular themes sounded by many mainstream media political observers was the damage the libertarian outlier was doing to the Republican brand and ultimately the party’s chances of defeating Barack Obama. Paul’s cheering throngs were loud and clear at the GOP’s presidential debates, and his strong showing in Iowa seemed to presage a dangerous extremist tilt to the opposition party.
But today, as Paul announced that he would no longer be campaigning in the remaining primary and caucus states, those warnings ring hollow. Paul may have had his moments during a fractious race, and his supporters will continue to make nuisances of themselves at state conventions, but in the end, his remained a symbolic candidacy that had little appeal to most Republicans. His libertarians will probably be heard from again in four or eight years if his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, takes the torch from his father and tries his luck at the presidential game. And some will claim he influenced the race and made great strides during his previous presidential runs. But the fact remains that his efforts fell flat as soon as the real voting started. Ron Paul ends his presidential run pretty much the way he began it: as someone outside the broad consensus of the Republican Party.
It should be conceded that Paul’s campaign was well-organized and highly effective in any state where delegates were chosen in caucuses where low turnouts minimized his main deficiency: the lack of broad support from the voters. Any place where tiny groups of motivated activists could seize control of the situation was one where Paul could make a good showing. Under those circumstances, Paul’s appeal to young, disaffected Democrats and independents who loved his isolationist stance on foreign policy and libertarian approach to social issues could make up for the fact that the overwhelming majority of Republicans had little interest in his ideas.
Paul was able to briefly shine in Iowa and stole the show at times in debates with his bizarre attacks on the Federal Reserve or his defense of the Islamist tyrants of Iran. Some liked his unassuming style and were charmed by the fact that, unlike the others on stage at the debates, he had no real plans to be president and therefore made no effort to pander to the voters. But his sideshow carnival candidacy ran out of steam as primary voters began to choose between the first tier candidates and he began a streak of last place finishes that were a better indication of his importance than the Iowa results.
His exit from active campaigning will, no doubt, provoke some pundits to claim that in 2012, his libertarians stopped being a marginal factor in the GOP and entered the mainstream. But this is, at best, an exaggeration. There was some overlap between Paul’s strict libertarianism and Tea Party sentiment about the size of government, debt and taxes. But that common ground was dwarfed by the gap between Paul’s conspiratorial view of economics as well as his foreign policy views that had more in common with the knee-jerk anti-American doctrines of the far left than with that of most Republicans.
Though many on the left wrongly assume his extremist approach resonated with the party’s base, the truth was, he had little to offer average Republican voters. Nor can it be credibly asserted that he moved the conservative discussion in his direction on any issue where it had not already moved. Every time he opened his mouth, he demonstrated the strong distinction between his own extremist approach and that of even most Tea Party hardliners.
Despite all the noise he made and the delegates he won, on the day when his campaign ended with a whimper, the chasm that separates Paul’s followers from the rest of the Republican Party is no smaller than it was a year ago.