Rand Paul: A Jeffersonian in a Jacksonian Moment

Senator Rand Paul, who was once considered a top-tier GOP candidate—the slicker, more mainstream version of his father, who might be able to appeal to a wider GOP constituency—has dropped out of the race after failing to get even a quarter of his father’s support in the Iowa caucuses. Paul’s poor performance is partly due to his own doing and his own political challenges: As many commentators have pointed out, his uneasy efforts to broaden his base beyond hardcore Ron Paul fans lost him some support among that group, even as his continued association with his father’s brand made more traditional Republicans wary. And despite a strong performance in the last debate, Paul often came across as joyless and didactic throughout the campaign.

Ultimately, however, Paul’s collapse is more about the mood of the party and the country than it is about any strategic missteps by him. 2016 is looking more like the year of the angry, middle- or working-class nationalist—in other words, of Andrew Jackson—than the year of the principled Jeffersonian libertarian. Sen. Paul was Edward Snowden’s most high-profile booster in a year when anxieties about terrorism are pushing leading candidates to denounce the NSA leaks in harsher and harsher terms. He was a strong advocate for criminal justice reform in a year when the GOP race seems increasingly defined by Nixon-style law-and-order toughness. And, of course, Rand Paul was a champion of a less active foreign policy and a smaller military at a time when support for a more hawkish foreign policy is surging among Republicans.

In other words, it was probably impossible for a candidate like Paul to take the helm of the GOP in a year like this one. Jeffersonianism has a long history in America, but it has historically run into trouble in the face of global chaos and internal discontent. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Jeffersonians will need to be content with influencing the party from the sidelines.

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