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Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, and Libertarians in the GOP

Rand Paul’s filibuster has already taken on legendary status and been championed as a libertarian challenge to the Republican Party’s conservative establishment. But what is often ignored is how much of a challenge it was to Paul’s own libertarian following. Paul’s triumph was by its own success also a keen declaration of libertarian failure. To understand why, you’d have to have noticed a tweet in support of Paul that came at nearly 9 p.m., toward the tail end of the filibuster. Using the #StandWithRand hashtag, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson tweeted the following:


Johnson has close to 117,000 Twitter followers, and that tweet was retweeted almost 3,000 times. Yet I wonder how many noticed the irony. Johnson’s Twitter biography reads: “I am the Honorary Chairman of the Our America Initiative, two-term Governor of New Mexico, and was the 2012 Libertarian candidate for President.” It is that last part that tells the story of how Rand Paul is changing conservative politics.

Johnson ran as a third-party candidate for president, against the GOP after first attempting to win the GOP nomination and being generally ignored. But Johnson had another option in 2012: instead of running for president as a third party to take away votes from the Republican ticket, he could have run for Senate in his home state of New Mexico. Johnson was a popular two-term governor of the state and there was an open seat in the 2012 elections, which the Democratic candidate won. In 2011, Johnson was asked by a libertarian blogger why he wouldn’t consider running for the Senate seat. Here is that blogger’s write-up of the response:

Gary told me he would not consider making a Senate bid because he considers the role of Senators to “shoulder up to the trough” and bring home money to their constituents. He says they’re part of the problem, and that he doesn’t think he can make a difference in that position like he could as president.

Paul effectively proved him wrong. Johnson is marginalized now instead of possibly having been able to join Paul in his filibuster from the Senate floor. Not only is Paul a leading libertarian voice in the Senate on an array of issues on which he doesn’t hesitate to challenge party leadership, but he is also considered a frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That is, it would not be shocking for this libertarian contrarian to be crowned as the Republican Party’s standard-bearer three years from now.

Working within the GOP is the surest way for libertarians to influence national policy and politics. That may sound obvious–and it should. The GOP may not have a spotless record on libertarian issues, but of the two major parties it is the only place for someone like Rand Paul, who is a pro-life libertarian. Liberals consider such a politician to be at once a raging theocrat and Ayn Randian anarchist-lite. Rand Paul’s very existence is a source of horror and confusion to most Democrats. And a Senator Gary Johnson would have been justly welcomed by the national GOP. Indeed, Johnson’s–and other libertarians’–insistence on the White House as the only path to power in American politics shows he has fallen prey to what libertarians themselves rightly call the “cult of the presidency.”

Just before November’s presidential election, libertarian Randy Barnett wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the creation of the Libertarian Party was a mistake. He made the correct point that Libertarian Party voters only make it more likely that a Democrat will be elected, and that since the Republicans have more in common with libertarians, the latter’s success will mean pro-libertarian policies become less likely. I find idealism, especially in Washington, to be an often-admirable antidote to modern political cynicism, but libertarians of all people should have a handle on the real-world unintended consequences of quixotic political action.

In his latest column, James Antle points out the extent to which attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference–not necessarily representative of the GOP overall but certainly a barometer of grassroots enthusiasm–agreed with Rand Paul on a whole host of issues. Paul seems to have reminded libertarians of a basic rule of politics: you can, and must, win the argument. Antle makes a key point when he writes:

It’s easy to see how this libertarian moment could be undone: elect a sufficiently hawkish Republican president and much of this sentiment on the right could recede. It’s also possible that this wing of the party tries to rise too fast for its own good. If Justin Amash were to run for Michigan’s open Senate seat next year and lose, followed by Rand Paul pushing forward with a competitive but unsuccessful presidential campaign rather than running for senate reelection in 2016, the movement could be without its two most prominent elected leaders.

There still may be a ceiling over the heads of libertarians in the GOP, which is staunchly pro-life and generally socially conservative, not to mention more hawkish on foreign affairs than Rand Paul (and much more so than his father’s legion of followers). That’s to the GOP’s credit. But if libertarians want influence in the party and on the national stage, they’ll need to work to elect libertarian voices to offices besides the presidency. Just ask Gary Johnson.

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