A disappointing season for libertarians and “movement” conservatives

I’m guessing that few sentient conservatives are happy with the way this election season is going. Two brands of conservatives will be particularly disappointed: libertarians and hard-core (or “movement”) conservatism.

The libertarian movement has been pushing to break through for years. This cycle, it seemed to have the ideal candidate to make a run at the presidency — Rand Paul, dubbed “the most interesting man in politics” by Time Magazine.

But Paul’s campaign flopped. He left the race after obtaining only 4.5 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, a number that, if anything, may have exceeded the level of his national support.

What happened? ISIS, for one thing. Its rise reminded Americans that the world is a dangerous place — too dangerous, perhaps, for our national security policy to be heavily informed by fear of what our own government might do.

Yet, I doubt that ISIS alone explains Rand Paul’s shockingly poor results. What does explain them? Maybe libertarians, a notoriously quarrelsome lot, were unwilling fully to embrace a candidate who tried at times to go a little bit mainstream. (I’ll leave a more probing post-mortem to those who understand this movement better than I do).

Some movement conservatives also had high hopes for 2016. In Ted Cruz, we seemed to have an ideal candidate in some key respects — a staunch ideological conservative of great intelligence capable of brilliantly articulating his case. Moreover, unlike in 2012, the so-called establishment lane seemed more clogged than the lane Cruz would be running in.

What happened? Donald Trump, for one thing. All bets are off as a result of the tycoon’s unexpected popularity.

Among Trump’s many accomplishments this season is the apparent refutation of a theme near and dear to some movement conservatives. We have often heard it said that there are millions of conservatives who don’t vote in the general election because the Republicans nominate an establishment squish. This was a premise of the Cruz candidacy.

The Trump candidacy seems to be demonstrating that, yes, there are a lot of angry citizens who don’t vote because they don’t like squishes; but, no, these citizens aren’t looking for an ideological conservative.

When a candidate’s results don’t live up to the expectations of his ideological supporters, the supporters tend to blame the candidate and/or his campaign. It’s easier than questioning the extent to which the ideology resonates.

Ted Cruz and his campaign are starting to receive this treatment. We see this in a fascinating article by veteran conservative analyst Arnold Steinberg. He writes:

Cruz has a high tech campaign, and his managers gleefully and imprudently publicize proprietary specifics. All that ego-tripping doesn’t help their candidate. But no amount of technology can compensate for what the Cruz team has so far failed to provide for its articulate and intense candidate. Focus groups would clearly have shown that Cruz seems to talk at people, not to people, that he seems structured, formal, unapproachable, ideological, and rigid.

At a social event a few days ago I encountered several people, former liberals who had become very conservative, who thought highly of Cruz but were supporting Rubio. I asked why. They said they preferred Cruz but felt he seemed to be “obnoxious,” and they thought Rubio would fare better as the nominee in November.

The Cruz campaign focus groups would have shown, or should have shown the challenges with the persona of Ted Cruz and pointed the way to help this highly intelligent man become more human, personable, charming, likable — however you want to say it. Of course, this requires high level campaign people with direct access to the candidates who have the institutional memory and judgment and smarts and rapport to work with him closely. You don’t resolve these challenges with high tech. This is a people thing.

Any campaign polling would have uncovered even more than what the public polls are showing – trouble within the Cruz base of evangelicals. What Cruz needed was not a superior database of more voter logarithmns, but wise counsel from thoughtful strategists to enhance his persona. There has been ample time to reconcile the authenticity of Cruz with a charm course. Why was last year squandered?

Steinberg is correct that Cruz’s persona is off putting to non-true believers and that the Senator’s rhetoric “at times seems arcane and esoteric.” (Indeed, it shouldn’t require focus groups to figure this out). Cruz would be doing better if he could be made to seem more charming, or at least to be abstaining from dirty campaigning.

I’m tempted to say that Rand Paul faltered in part because, unlike his father, he’s a libertarian “with a human face,” while Ted Cruz is faltering in part because he’s a movement conservative without one. But we should also be asking whether the conservative “base” is large enough even to nominate an uncompromising movement conservative, let alone elect one president.