When a magazine calls you the "most interesting man in politics," one of two things can happen. The first — the one you'd prefer — is that your ideas and intellect lift you into the White House.
The second is that you turn out like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
I have covered Paul and his father, former Texas representative Ron Paul, for almost the entirety of my reporting career. There were times in 2007, as a reporter for Reason, when I was the only member of the press interested in asking a question of this apparent gadfly. Eight years later, there were times when the demand to talk to Rand Paul was so high that an "interview" I'd begged for would become one question mumbled toward the senator as he jumped into an SUV. And by the end of his campaign, as gruesomely captured by Politico's Shane Goldmacher, I was the only reporter in a debate spin room who could be counted on to ask Rand Paul a question.
Merry-go-rounds don't come as full circle as that.
Unlike my colleague Jenna Johnson, I didn't cover a candidate's quick collapse. Rand Paul had been subjected to "whatever happened to" stories since before the leaves fall last year. But like Jenna, The Post's reporter with Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), I covered someone who seemed to lead a new movement in American politics — then, suddenly, didn't.
I'm in Manchester Saturday, working just blocks from the place where I first covered the Pauls. In a few hours, I'll cover my first Republican debate that doesn't include a member of the Paul family. That's a good reason to reflect not just on what happened, but what didn't, in the Rand Paul campaign. (All references to "Paul" below are to the senator. Also, disclosure: I voted for Ron Paul in the 2008 Washington, D.C. primary.)
1) He rarely enjoyed running for president.
This was one of the worst-kept secrets in politics. Some politicians gain energy as a day goes on, and as voters demand pictures and conversations and autographs. Paul, like his father, gritted his teeth and put up with it. Where some politicians would get their umpteenth question about Social Security and act oh, so very grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important issue, Paul would say a telltale word. "Right." That was the high sign for one of his stock answers. Anyone who interviewed him off camera might hear the same thing, or watch him stifle a yawn.
Paul's campaign seemed to work smartly around this. Whenever possible, it would bring a backdrop to events and allow every voter to take a picture with the candidate. When a reporter (like me) asked for evidence that Paul was getting the voter contacts he needed in Iowa, he would be told that Paul had taken photos with this-many or that-many thousands of voters. Reporters who saw him in the airport, or on a plane, might negotiate for a short interview. Just as often, they got body language that clearly warned them off from a senator who wanted to drink his cranberry juice and club soda, read a book, or close his eyes.
2) His version of "messaging" felt a lot like "winging it."
In the summer, Paul visited the "world's largest truck stop" in eastern Iowa, field staff placed man-sized vinyl stand-ups, with details about his views on ethanol subsidies. Typically, when a campaign (or president) speaks around a backdrop, the backdrop will drive home a point. But in a 20-minute Q&A, Paul did not once mention ethanol subsidies.
This happened a lot. In the final stretch of the Iowa campaign, Paul scheduled a "town hall about eminent domain" in Oskaloosa, talked a little about eminent domain, then switched to the topic of foreign policy. Every audience question was about Syria. This discursive style made Paul fun to cover, and it was unheard of to hear him get thrown by a policy question the way some more message-hugging candidates do. It also meant that he only rarely "won" a news cycle. That was never starker than on a summer visit Paul made to South Carolina, where he gave several interviews designed to promote his coming bill to defund Planned Parenthood. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) swooped in and got the coverage and the credit.
3) He was never a "front-runner" — his voters liked the label, but he didn't.
As in nuclear war, the only way to "win" the expectations game is not to play. Paul was never comfortable with early coverage that portrayed him as a man to beat, like a January 2014 column by Peter Beinart that built his hypothetical road to the nomination. ("Paul looks like a better bet than anyone else to finish in the top two in both Iowa and New Hampshire.") To Paul's supporters, this was worth celebrating; they had struggled through two underdog elections where the media seemed to mock them outright.
Paul, who only saw a path to the nomination if he changed the party dramatically, did not celebrate with them. Beinart was right, insofar as Paul wanted to "place" in the early states. But he thought it would happen after turning out thousands of supporters. At the end of 2014, he seemed outright joyful when I asked how he felt about Mitt Romney blowing ahead of him in a poll of New Hampshire. "Phew," he said. "That takes off a lot of pressure!" It was one of those jokes told to cover up the truth by accentuating it.
4) Paul resisted the Trump fight until it was too late.
In the days before the first GOP debate, I was one of just a few reporters covering a Paul swing through Illinois and eastern Iowa. The million-dollar question of the time was how candidates would debate Donald Trump. Paul responded with palaver that had nothing to do with Trump, and when I stopped the tape recorder, I joked that I only had 10 Trump questions left.
"I'd just dodge 'em again," Paul said, immediately turning his eyes away to sign some baseballs for supporters. One week later, Paul opened the first Republican debate by attacking Trump. "He buys and sells politicians of all stripes!" he said. In the coming months, Paul careened from critique to critique, aware but helpless to change the fact that Trump would mock him as a loser.
5) Ron Paul was a problem, but not in the way Rand Paul expected.
One reason, perhaps the main reason, for the "liberty movement's" optimism about Paul was that he was not his father. The elder Paul made his Republican runs when he was well into his 70s, fit but older than the presidents Americans tend to elect. His speeches were far more discursive than Paul's, sentence rolling after sentence, in an order that seemed almost random.
Yet Ron Paul inspired passion that Rand Paul couldn't. Supporters of the family patriarch called him "the Thomas Jefferson of our time," and forgave him all sorts of stumbles, because they were seen to come from a place of pure integrity. The people who loved that truly, energetically hated anything that seemed like a Rand Paul "evolution." His father eventually opposed Don't Ask Don't Tell; Paul defended Kim Davis. His father favored the Iran nuclear deal: Paul opposed it.
The father did not criticize the son, but rather than embarrassing him with a gaffe — something the campaign was ready for — his consistency led soft supporters to abandon Rand Paul. In an interview before the Republican debates in Boulder, Paul told me ruefully that he had more haters than anyone else running for president, visible at blogs like United Liberty; fans of Ron Paul obsessed and condemned any Paul feint to the center-right.
6) The Ron Paul movement was also more nationalist than libertarians had realized.
The elder Paul's campaigns surprised beltway libertarians, who had assumed for years that the most electable version of their dogma was culturally liberal. In 2008, when I talked to Libertarian Party presidential nominee Bob Barr, he couldn't understand why Federal Reserve policy seemed to animate more people than opposition to the drug war.
Ron Paul's coalition had a lot in common with the one that briefly made Pat Buchanan into a phenomenon; in the past, the elder Paul's advisers definitely exploited nationalist, racially panicked sentiment in the cause of bringing more members of the party into their movement. Rand Paul rejected that completely, and he did so in the year of Donald Trump. The "alternative right," which had embraced Ron Paul, saw a champion in Trump. Cosmopolitan libertarianism (or "cosmotarianism") does not win blue collar votes.
7) Bernie Sanders is the new Ron Paul.
There were rumblings of this when Sanders entered the race last year, but it took a while for the reality to settle. Yes, thousands of voters who supported a fan of Ludwig Von Mises turned around and fell for a democratic socialist. There is no venn diagram that fits those positions; there are two circles.
Yet as it turned out, some people who'd joined the Ron Paul coalition were ready to join the left. The 2012 campaign — the most successful by any member of the Paul family — took place when President Obama faced no serious primary opponent. The result is obvious in that year's New Hampshire exit poll. Paul, who won just 23 percent of the vote, fared better with "moderate to liberal" voters — 28 percent. He won outright with first-time primary voters.
Those kinds of voters, interested in outsiders and a few hard issue stances, are not bound to libertarianism. They are more interested in sending a message. Like Paul, Sanders told his audiences that by showing up in large numbers, they were forcing the media to cover something outside of their aperture. Like Paul, Sanders turned campaign donations into a symbol of solidarity. Ron Paul invented the multi-million dollar "moneybomb." Rand Paul never raised as much in one quarter as Paul raised in just one December 2007 fundraising push.
The factors that cut against Rand Paul as a presidential candidate won't hurt him at all in the Senate. But the campaign that creates a long-lasting movement this year will not be led by a Paul. It is being led right now by the socialist from Vermont.