More than two years ago, in May 2013, I followed Rand Paul to Iowa and New Hampshire. Just six months after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, Paul had begun touring the country to lay the groundwork for his own presidential run—and for a new style of Republican politics.
I planned at the time to write about Paul’s ambition to be the man who could rescue the down-in-the-dumps Republican Party: an unorthodox politician who could break the GOP’s link to its toxic past by repudiating the neocon warmongering of George W. Bush, while forging a new connection with youth and minority voters by stressing civil liberties. Paul’s theory was that he could win the primary by building on the libertarian movement built by his father, the former Texas Representative Ron Paul, and reaching out to other Republican constituencies. And then, in a general election, he believed his views would have unique crossover appeal.
At that time, a lot of things seemed to be working in Paul’s favor. In March 2013, his 13-hour talking filibuster excoriating the Obama administration for its drone policy caused a sensation on the right. Various scandals in the news—subpoenas of reporters, the IRS scandal, the NSA’s cell-phone and email spying—seemed to underscore his crusade against government surveillance and intrusion. Conservative intellectuals were abuzz about the potential for a new brand of “libertarian populism” to excite voters who Romney hadn’t been able to inspire.