The “Libertarian Moment” Passes

Time really does fly. It was a shock to realize that it’s been over a year since Robert Draper’s much-celebrated and much-mocked (I contributed mostly to the latter) New York Times Magazine piece that suggested Rand Paul’s presidential campaign might coincide with a “Libertarian Moment” in which conditions were ripe for a conquest of the Republican Party and the country by the movement often marginalized as a bunch of nerdy young men who never recovered from their adolescent exposure to the works of Ayn Rand.

But as Dave Weigel–a guy with libertarian roots of his own, who has been following Paul on the campaign trail during the Invisible Primary–documents today, almost nobody’s projecting a “libertarian moment” at present. And in fact, libertarians are distancing themselves from Paul’s floundering campaign even as they rationalize its problems as a matter of strategic missteps or bad timing.

Draper politely declined to revisit his own article and argument, but I caught up with some of his sources. No one argues with this: The Paul campaign’s struggle has quieted down the “libertarian moment” talk. The dream of Paul as a “frontrunner” in waiting was based on a few polls that showed his support in the high teens. For a brief time, it made sense for libertarians to hitch their wagons to the story of a thriving national politician. That’s happening less now.

“It’s a mistake to conflate Rand Paul’s electoral success with that of the libertarian moment,” said Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason.com. (Disclosure: I worked for Reason from 2006 to 2008.) “Rand Paul’s high visibility is better understood as a consequence of the libertarian moment than its cause. There’s a reason why he’s been at his most electrifying and popular precisely when he is at his most libertarian: calling out the surveillance state, for instance, and leading the charge against reckless interventions in Syria and Libya.”

That’s a polite way of saying Paul’s effort to make libertarianism palatable to mainstream Republicans took him too far away from his roots. Non-libertarians would put the shoe on another foot, as Weigel notes in quoting Commentary‘s Noah Rothman:

To Rothman, the rise of ISIS put a quick end to the argument waged by Paul. “The libertarian position on foreign interventionism and counter-terror preparation has been thoroughly routed,” he writes. That might not have changed the narrative so decisively had the 2014 elections not gone so well for Republicans – especially hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). The voices crying out for reform within the party didn’t seem as necessary after the party conquered states like West Virginia and Illinois. Paul said that his party could “only win” if it reached out on libertarian values. It didn’t, then it won.

More generally, the 2014 landslide may explain why Republicans seem to be rejecting all their post-2012 vows to “reach out” and change their angry-old-white-guy image. So maybe it’s the “Republican Reform Moment” that has really passed. As someone who suggested repeatedly that could be the silver lining of 2014 for Democrats, I’m not surprised.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.