How To Judge a Political Candidate

by , April 22, 2015

As buds sprout on long-dormant trees and the first blooms of Spring peek out from their beds, presidential candidates are gearing up for the political season – which is, I fear, already upon us. It therefore behooves us to examine what to make of them: but first it’s necessary to establish some hard and fast rules.

Of course most voters don’t do this, and they certainly don’t do it this early in the game. Too busy with the important things in life – family, friends, sheer survival – they wait until the final weeks of the campaign, when all is said and done, and then they judge a candidate on his or her connection to themselves and their lives, or by some alchemical standard of personality and “vibes.” Do I trust this person? Do they mean what they say? Am I going to suffer or profit if they win the prize? These are the sorts of questions the average voter asks – and answers – before casting a vote.

But we aren’t average, now are we?

In writing this, I’m assuming that, for the most part, my audience consists of what might be called ideological voters of a very specific kind. If you’re reading this, you’re probably more concerned about what a candidate for the White House thinks about the Middle East than what he or she would do about, say, climate change, or gay marriage, to name two issues off the top of my head. Furthermore, you have a certain view of what ought to be done – and not done – in that volatile region that has been and continues to be the scene of so much carnage, much of it inflicted by our own government.

In addition, if you’re not exactly a libertarian, you’re probably somewhat libertarian-ish, at least to the extent of sympathizing with the libertarian agenda of rolling back the Surveillance State, demilitarizing law enforcement, and preserving what’s left of our constitutional liberties that have been under relentless assault from both the right and the left.

Given all this, there are some rules of the road for that long journey to Election Day, 2016, that need to be followed, lest we lose our way. And these rules exist for a very good reason: that is, for our own protection and the protection of our particular agenda. After all, we aren’t just your average voter. We vote in the party primaries, as well as in the general election: and we very often volunteer to work on a campaign, or maybe give money. Sometimes both. We become emotionally invested in the candidate, and take very personally his or her success or failure: when he or she speaks, we hold our breath, hoping the words will come out right. So these rules are for our own safety: the safety of the emotional, financial, and political investment we make in a campaign.

Having said that, what, then, are the Rules of the Road? I can think of three:

1. The Noncontradiction Rule – Here I take my cue from Murray Rothbard, the libertarian economist and theorist who thought the most about strategy, and wrote down his thoughts on many occasions. In his memo, “Strategies for a Libertarian Victory,” he laid down the first principle for libertarian activists to follow – and, I might add, this applies also in a more general sense to those who may not be libertarians, but want to achieve a more peaceful world by reversing Washington’s foreign policy of unrelenting aggression. Rothbard wrote:

“To be efficacious, to achieve the goal of liberty [or peace] as quickly as possible, it should be clear that the means must not contradict the ends. For if they do, the ends are being obstructed instead of pursued as efficiently as possible.”

Let’s take a specific example of how this rule can be violated: recently, Sen. Rand Paul put forth an amendment to the budget that would have increased the “defense” appropriation by a significant amount. Now Sen. Paul is said to be a non-interventionist, “a different kind of Republican” who has been attacked by leading neoconservatives as an “isolationist,” and he has actively courted the noninterventionist vote, including supporters of his decidedly anti-interventionist father. In making his budget proposal, the Senator was trying to expose his opponents – Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – as big spenders, because the proposal they voted for didn’t make commensurate cuts in non-“defense” items while his did. However, Paul’s amendment was almost identical to the Cruz-Rubio amendment in every other respect: it, too, raised the “defense” budget, albeit by a few million less. This in spite of the fact that Paul has in the past decried the defense budget as packed with fat.

So in this case Paul is not only contradicting the ultimate goal of rolling back the Warfare State, he’s contradicting himself.

2. The Branding Rule – Modern campaigning techniques are often derided by the high-minded because they so often resemble advertising campaigns out to sell consumers some product or other: our Olympian intellectuals have nothing but disdain for this “commercialization” of politics, and sneer that political strategists are trying to sell candidates as if they were bars of soap. But of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and certainly libertarians will understand the explicit anti-capitalist bias of such a wrong-headed attitude. After all, selling people on an ideology, or a candidate, is not fundamentally different from selling them, say, a brand of toothpaste, or whatever. The idea is to convince them that this candidate, product, or idea serves their best interests, and, furthermore, that because of this they owe the product/candidate/idea some degree of loyalty.

The worst thing a candidate for office can do is to sully their brand: that is, to send out a mixed message. That’s because the average voter doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to keep track of the nuances and intricacies of every candidate’s position papers. These are for reporters and policy wonks, and mostly go unread. Having established his or her brand, the candidate must stick with it, playing the same theme over and over until the voters can’t get it out of their minds, like a song played early in the morning that keeps ringing in one’s ears all day long. That is especially true this year because there are so many candidates and potential candidates out there, and inattentive voters can barely tell one from the other. A candidate must give voters a reason to vote or him or her, as opposed to any other, and to interrupt or abort this process of differentiation is to court disaster.

Let’s take a specific example of how this can occur: Remember when Sen. Paul announced that he would introduce a bill declaring war on ISIS? It was a supremely bad idea, and it you might say it bombed, big-time. Why? Because it went against all his previous branding as the noninterventionist, non-warmongering Republican. Yes, I know, his father said the same thing, about the Iraq war (and voted against his own resolution), and yes, I realize it’s the “constitutional” thing to do, but none of that matters if doing so sends out a confusing message. Upon hearing about this, the average informed voter is going to think and no doubt did think: is the candidate busy denouncing his rivals as “warmongers” really calling on Congress to issue the first formal declaration of war since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?

This branding rule applies not just to candidates but to ideological movements as well, and to violate it brings the same disastrous results. In a recent piece for Reason magazine, editor Matt Welch takes libertarians to task for giving Sen. Paul too hard a time, especially on his heterodox foreign policy pronouncements. He makes the case for what he calls the “Weaver principle,” named after the great baseball manager Earl Weaver, and cites this account of Weaver’s career:

“Weaver credits his ability to evaluate talent with the epiphany he experienced when he realized he would never play in the majors. In [a 1979] Time article, he said, ‘Right then I started becoming a good baseball person, because when I came to recognize, and more important, accept my own deficiencies, then I could recognize other players’ inabilities and learn to accept them, not for what they can’t do, but for what they can do.’"

While acknowledging that managing a baseball team and running for President aren’t quite the same thing, Welch applies his analogy to the Paul campaign:

“For all of Sen. Paul’s real and postulated deviations from the libertarian script (pretending for the moment that such a fixed thing exists), when you focus instead on the libertarian-friendly things a President Paul still might plausibly accomplish, it’s pretty easy to turn that frown upside-down.

“That goes first of all to the area that Ron Paul fans hit the son hardest: foreign policy. Here’s what Paul said in New Hampshire last week: ‘The other Republicans will criticize the president and Hillary Clinton for their foreign policy, but they would just have done the same thing – just 10 times over,’ Paul said on the closing day of a New Hampshire GOP conference that brought about 20 presidential prospects to the first-in-the-nation primary state. ‘There’s a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now, maybe more,’ Paul said.

“I predict that after 10 more months of that kind of talk, quite a few currently disillusioned anti-war libertarians will be singing a somewhat different tune.”

If Welch is right, and we’re singing a different tune in this space, that will be because Sen. Paul is singing a different tune – provided he doesn’t further confuse voters (and his base) with more pandering to the War Party.

There’s a deeper issue in dispute here, however, because there is indeed a “libertarian script” when it comes to foreign policy, whether or not the editor of the leading libertarian magazine wants to recognize it. Later on in his piece, Welch lauds Paul for taking an unequivocal stand against universal government surveillance, which came into being after 9/11 and the commencement of our “war on terrorism.” Yet these two issues – civil liberties and foreign policy – are not divisible. The entire rationale for universal surveillance is our post-9/11 state of constant warfare, whether it be against Saddam Hussein or ISIS or Vladmir Putin’s Russia. Without a consistent anti-interventionist position it’s impossible to advance and defend a credible case against the Surveillance State.

“Of the 19 potential GOP candidates who visited New Hampshire this weekend,” writes Welch, “there were basically 18 hawks and one Rand Paul.”

Translation: Well, he’s better than all those other guys.

But is that good enough? American voters have had some hard learning experiences in this regard. To Democratic primary voters looking for some relief from Bush’s belligerence in 2008, Barack Obama shone in comparison to Hillary Clinton. The latter had stubbornly stuck to defending her vote in favor of attacking Iraq and was regularly making hawkish noises on the campaign trail. Obama, on the other hand, pledged to get us out of Iraq and gave the general impression that he would concentrate on the home front without getting us into any more conflicts.

We all know how that turned out.

Which brings us to the third rule of the road to the White House:

3. The Trustworthiness Rule – I realize this may come as a shock to my more sensitive (or naïve) readers, but politicians have been known to lie. Yes, it’s true! Of all the factors that go into a voter’s decision to support a given candidate, especially when it comes to the office of President, the question of trust is perhaps at the top of the list. Obama said he’d rein in the Warfare State – and proceeded, upon taking office, to invade Libya, meddle in Syria and Ukraine, go big in Afghanistan, strafe Somalia, and re-invade Iraq. George W. Bush said he’d abjure nation-building and then embarked on the most ambitious – and disastrous – course of nation-building in the modern era.

Whom can we trust?

I wish I could say I trusted Sen. Paul: my regular readers know I spent a good deal of wordage praising and defending him. Yet his sudden lurch in the direction of the War Party, epitomized by his signing of a letter to the Iranian leadership basically telling them that any agreement reached with the Obama administration is basically worthless, was a turning point.

The reason is not only because the prospect of war with Iran looms large these days, but also because it violates every one of the above rules. It calls into question everything we thought we knew about the Senator, and raises the issue of what, exactly, he would do in a crisis situation once in office. Would he cave in to the Israel lobby as quickly as he did on the campaign trail? With an eye toward reelection, would he bend a knee to Bibi and decide that the space between “being nowhere any time” and “everywhere all the time” meant we had to go to war with Iran?

I don’t know the answer to that question. And that makes me nervous. Very nervous. Because there are loud voices calling for an attack on Iran: there’s a powerful lobby, which Paul has gone out of his way to pander to and appease, which has made war with Tehran a top priority. And we’re not just talking about Iran: nuclear-armed Russia is also in the War Party’s sight, and on that issue Paul has said one thing and then another, contradicting himself from one moment to the next. With all this pressure, and all these strident voices getting louder by the minute, does Sen. Paul have the character to stand his ground?

I sincerely wish I could answer yes to my own question, but I quite honestly can’t. And in the world we live in today, knowing the answer is enormously important: indeed, it’s a matter of life and death.

Matt Welch is quite right when he says “The president of the United States has unusually wide latitude to make decisions about foreign policy and war,” but I’m not so sure that, like Welch, I believe at this point that Sen. Paul “would certainly be the least interventionist president since at least Ronald Reagan, and perhaps since Herbert Hoover.”

I’ll take Hoover, but Reagan, I would remind you, conducted an illegal and horribly destructive war in Nicaragua against the duly elected government, invaded defenseless Grenada, and armed the Islamist crazies in Afghanistan who would later bring down the World Trade Center. Not to mention bankrupting the country by initiating the biggest military buildup in history.

The example of Reagan as some kind of Gandhi-like figure just goes to show how far the tide has turned in the War Party’s favor: if he is the gold standard of non-interventionism, then we’re all doomed to a future of perpetual war.

We don’t endorse political candidates here at Antiwar.com, and this isn’t just because we’re a nonprofit. The main reason is that we value our editorial independence too much to become the voice of any party or faction. We’re fiercely nonpartisan, yet unabashedly ideological: while making room for a wide variety of viewpoints and writers, both conservative and progressive, we don’t hide the fact that we’re libertarians, not merely “libertarian-ish.”

A noninterventionist foreign policy is not just another item in the libertarian smorgasbord, to be served up when it’s convenient and in accordance with the diners’ tastes: it is the main course. As Murray Rothbard pointed out more than forty years ago:

“Most conservatives and libertarians are very familiar with – and deplore – the increase in State power in the American government in the last 50 or 70 years, but what they don’t seem to realize is that most of these increases took place in giant leaps during wartime. It was wartime that provided the crisis situation – the spark – which enabled the States to put on so-called "emergency" measures, which of course never got lifted, or rarely got lifted.”

While conservatives are still learning this, the great majority of “movement” libertarians long ago came to understand that opposition to wars of aggression is the essential element that brings all the others – economic freedom and civil liberties – together, and, indeed, makes them possible in the first place. That’s why these electoral “Rules of the Road” emphasize the importance of preserving and defending the libertarian brand against all who would dilute it and deprive it of its most important element.

The modern libertarian movement was born in the struggle against the Vietnam war and its domestic corollary, the legalized slavery of the draft, and we stand in that proud tradition. It was libertarian activists in the conservative “Young Americans for Freedom” – now a largely (and deservedly) defunct right-wing youth group founded by Bill Buckley – who rebelled against rightist support for the war and the generalized attack on civil liberties on the home front, and in doing so founded an independent libertarian movement. To those “conservatarians” who want to go back to subordinating themselves to the War Party in the vain hope that they can inveigle themselves into power in Washington, we say “Good luck – and good riddance!”

It is one thing to join together with like-minded conservatives who have learned the lessons of the past and come to question the fanatic interventionism of the Fox News/National Review/neocon crowd: that has been our strategic orientation from the beginning. It is quite another matter to liquidate the libertarian movement into that amalgam of losers in the vain hope of somehow sneaking into the White House. A more misconceived hope, a more impractical “pragmatism,” can hardly be imagined.

It looks to me like Sen. Paul has been getting the message, whether from his base or some of his better advisors who realize that turning the other cheek is a bad campaign strategy. Just today he issued this stinging rebuttal to Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who have been needling him mercilessly over his alleged “isolationism”:

“This comes from a group of people wrong about every policy issue over the last two decades. … And these people are essentially the lapdogs for President Obama and I think they’re sensitive about that. “They supported Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya; they supported President Obama’s bombing of Assad; they also support President Obama’s foreign aid to countries that hate us. So if there is anyone who is most opposed to President Obama’s foreign policy, it’s me. People who call loudest to criticize me are great proponents of President Obama’s foreign policy — they just want to do it ten times over.” 

Amen, brother! Whatever the reason for this new anti-interventionist “turn” – I think it may well be due to the Senator’s by now famous prickliness – it is welcome indeed. But I have the distinct feeling that we wouldn’t be hearing this but for the chorus of criticism coming not just from me, but from Jacob Heilbrun, Daniel Larison, Brian Doherty, Jesse Walker, Nick Gillespie, and others.

It’s not a matter of blindly following a “leader,” and hailing his every word no matter what comes out of his mouth: that’s hardly the libertarian way. The idea that one can be critically supportive may be just the kind of innovation American politics at this juncture requires. As a journalist, and not a party hack or an “organization man,” that has always been my own stance.

We here at Antiwar.com are watching the Paul campaign with great interest, and more than a little sympathy. However, we aren’t going to pull our punches. We’re treating Rand Paul just like we treat all the others, holding him to the same standard – and letting the chips fall where they may.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo