Why Rand Paul stumbled

Rand Paul suspending presidential campaign
Rand Paul suspending presidential campaign

    JUST WATCHED

    Rand Paul suspending presidential campaign

MUST WATCH

Rand Paul suspending presidential campaign 02:07

Story highlights

  • Rand Paul announces he is suspending his presidential campaign
  • Matt Welch: Ted Cruz has been better at converting anti-Washington sentiment into support

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Of the many fascinating numbers to come out of Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, the most surprising might have been this: The largest single issue of concern named by Republican voters in entrance polls was government spending, clocking in at 32%. Way down at fourth was immigration, at 13%. Why, it's almost as if fiscally conservative voters care about fiscal conservatism!

And yet the candidate who liked to say "I'm the only fiscal conservative in this race" is now dropping out, after finishing a distant and disappointing fifth in Iowa. So, what happened to Rand Paul?
Part of the Kentucky senator's problem was that he failed to convince voters about the "only" part. Like opposition to abortion, support for a balanced budget has long since become Republican cant, mouthed (unconvincingly) even by big government entitlements-defenders like Donald Trump. When in doubt, candidates can always support the unicorn of a balanced-budget amendment, or just claim falsely that they've balanced budgets before.
    Matt Welch
    That said, Paul's competition talked a much better fiscal conservative game than the presidential fields faced by his father in 2012 and 2008. And his maneuvers to heighten the contradictions -- such as proposing a $190 billion increase in military spending with corresponding offsets, so he could highlight the fiscal irresponsibility of Sen. Marco Rubio's offset-free defense hike of equal value -- were a parliamentary mouthful to explain, and backfired among some of his core libertarian audience.
    The news cycle also hasn't been Paul's friend, and not just on national security issues (where the drones/Edward Snowden/anti-Syria-intervention headlines of 2013 have given way to ISIS beheadings, lost territory in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a colossal Syrian refugee crisis). The tea party, from which Rand Paul emanated in 2010, arose in opposition to the 2008 bailout and 2009-10 Affordable Care Act negotiations, and then exerted heavy influence on the constant budget battles between the GOP House of Representatives and the Democratic Senate from 2011-2014, but then began to wane the moment Republicans took over both houses of Congress.
    Absent the kind of nonstop conflict over debt ceilings and sequestration cuts and continuing resolutions, the political media turned its attention to the 2016 race, while Washington Republicans made deals with themselves and minority Democrats to reverse military cuts, jack up domestic spending, and just wave the whole debt-ceiling thingie off until 2017. Not only did this shift take away one of Paul's better forums for making his case for limited government -- the Sunday shows loved to hear from him during budget impasses -- but it contributed to the sense among the conservative grass roots that even sending rock-ribbed fiscal conservatives to Congress doesn't make a difference. Why not just blow the whole thing up?
    "I think it's like Charlie Brown and Lucy," Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, a friend and supporter of Paul's, told me last month. "The voting population is so tired of ... trying to kick the football, and it gets pulled away from them at the last second. They have sent some people here to Congress who said all the right things, they ran as tea party candidates, then they got up here and they voted for the omnibus bill, or voted for Speaker (John) Boehner on their first day after pledging they wouldn't vote for him. And so what they're looking for is somebody that's not going to be controlled when they get here."
    For many, that somebody has been Donald Trump, whose routine disregard for the Constitution might seem an odd fit with voters who consider themselves "constitutional conservatives." But as longtime tea party activist and more recently minted Rand Paul fundraiser Matt Kibbe recently explained to me, there's "such disgust with the D.C. establishment that I think some tea partiers have just given up, and they view Donald Trump as a bull in a china shop; they love the fact that he's creating such fits with the GOP establishment. And they're not really worried about what he stands for."
    Fellow tea party senator and Iowa winner Ted Cruz has been very effective so far this campaign in doing what Rand Paul could not: converting that visceral anti-Washington sentiment into support. For his fans, Cruz's long enemies list and off-putting demeanor are features, not bugs. Sadly for libertarians, that political canniness also involves blatant reversals on criminal justice reform, gratuitous calls to "carpet bomb" ISIS, and public vows to fight the alleged "crisis" of same-sex marriage.
    Will Cruz pick up the banner of fiscal conservatism from his vanquished tea party opponent? He will most certainly try. Whether it can work, or whether he really means it, are different questions altogether.