Without Rand Paul, here's what Republicans might face in November

Rand Paul Drops Out of Presidential Race

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In 2014, The Daily Beast's Olivia Nuzzi wrote a story titled "Rand Paul = Democrats' Enemy #1." It was about how Democrats were targeting Paul more than any other potential 2016 Republican because they feared the crossover appeal of his unique libertarian brand.

"Democrats fundraise and campaign by exploiting concerns about right-wing extremism," Nuzzi wrote. "But at least at the moment, what they apparently fear most is the rise of a candidate who could potentially poach enough of their supporters to beat them in 2016."

That was 17 months ago.

Last night, the Iowa Caucus was won by Ted Cruz (28 percent), Donald Trump (24 percent) and Marco Rubio (23 percent).

Paul got 5 percent.

If not Paul, I'm glad it was Cruz who won. His opposition to U.S. military intervention in Libya and Syria and his anti-torture positions are important stances Republicans need to hear.

There's no such thing as the perfect candidate.

However there are imperfections so great that they can prevent candidates from winning or that make them unworthy of victory.

There are good things that can be said about each candidate. There are also significant drawbacks that leave me with no choice but to toss up my hands.

Ted Cruz

Cruz is a conservative's conservative and my (distant) second choice for president (for the reasons mentioned above). Everything I like about the conservative movement (small government, constitutional fidelity, protection of liberty) he's solid on with some exceptions. The things I find problematic about contemporary conservatism (fear mongering, demagoguery, hateful rhetoric, mindless hawkishness) he possesses enough to be troubling, not only to my libertarian sensibilities but also likely to voters at large.

But Cruz's sermonic speaking-style that goes over so well with conservatives seems to have the opposite effect on non-Republicans and even some in his own party.

When I went home for the holidays this year, a close family member who usually votes Republican told me in no uncertain terms that he thought Cruz was the worst of the bunch.

"Why?" I asked. His style, I was told. The way he speaks. "Used car salesman," he added. This attitude is by no means exclusive to my one family member. I've seen this reaction from too many to ignore it.

As National Review's Charles Cooke put it:

Because for all his obvious talent Cruz's rhetorical style frankly makes my hair curl a little. Striking a pose that lands somewhere between the oleaginousness of a Joel Osteen and the self-assuredness of a midwestern vacuum-cleaner salesman, Cruz delivers his speeches as might a mass-market motivational speaker in an Atlantic City Convention Center.

Cooke adds, "I'd guess that if Cruz does somehow end up as the nominee he will lose convincingly.... Ted Cruz will be able to make his pitch is to travel around the country and speak to the people, in the very tone that will ultimately be his undoing."

This entire election has been about style over substance, and despite Cruz having conservative substance, his overall manner has the potential to turn off large numbers of voters.

Cruz would be my second choice for president, but I simply don't see how he has enough crossover appeal in a general election.

Donald Trump

Perhaps the best thing about Donald Trump, as non-ideological as he is, he has said some sensible things on foreign policy in ways that challenge the Republican hawks' consensus.

As The Federalist's Ben Domenech notes:

On foreign policy, Donald Trump is exploiting American frustration with the elites of both parties. He cites over and over again his opposition to the war in Iraq as a smackdown for the neoconservative views which have ruled the roost in Republican foreign policy circles for 15 years. But he also uses his opposition to engagement in Libya to smack Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio. It is very telling that the two leading candidates in the GOP primary today are very critical of intervention in Iraq and Libya and Syria, and this has not only not hurt them, but potentially helped them reach more than 50 percent support in the polls. One would think Republican elites would recognize this and think about what it means about the views of their base. One would think, but one would be wrong.

I also like that Trump has made the establishment squirm overall. This is healthy.

What's not healthy is Trump's hatemongering and racial demagoguery. He represents the worst of not just the Republican Party but betrays basic American values.

It shouldn't be a surprise that he has some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any candidate in modern elections.

I doubt Trump would beat the Democratic nominee.

Marco Rubio

Rubio is the opposite of Cruz and Trump when it comes to likeability and crossover appeal. He is very electable and could potentially beat the Democratic nominee.

He could win.

But win what?

Rubio actually heavily negates Cruz and Trump's primary positives. The Week's Michael Brendan Dougherty describes why a President Rubio would be a nightmare for libertarians, conservatives, the GOP and the country:

Rubio's candidacy is essentially based on the premise that nothing from the George W. Bush era has to change for the Republican Party.

Nominating Rubio is a statement that the party does not need a course correction. It doesn't need to stand even more firmly with social conservatives or fight with greater zeal and brinksmanship, as Cruz has argued. Nominating Rubio is a statement that the party does not need to find a less aggressive or less interventionist foreign policy, as Trump, Rand Paul, and (to a lesser degree) Cruz have argued. Nominating Rubio is a statement that the party does not need to offer any policy changes to attract working-class whites, as the candidacies of Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum have, to varying degrees, suggested...

Rubio-mania is practically guaranteed. He's the candidate of the future, after all. The GOP is just telling us the future looks exactly like the last Bush administration.

For the reasons Dougherty describes here and others I described Monday, this is why I fear Rubio even more than Trump.

The alleged fresh face actually represents a huge step backward.

So to recap:

Cruz is a solid conservative (for good or ill) who probably can't win.
Trump challenges the establishment, but represents too much ugliness to win.
Rubio could win but it would be a major loss for conservatives and liberty lovers.

If only there was a Republican presidential candidate who's conservative in the best ways, anti-establishment and yet possessed crossover appeal that could challenge Democrats on their own turf.

There is such a Republican.

He got only 5 percent in Iowa.

Wrote Olivia Nuzzi in 2014, "If Paul gets the nomination, he becomes the effective leader of his party—meaning his redefinition of that conservative box could become the definition, a problem for Democrats, as Paul has a tendency to stake out atypical positions for a conservative and reach across party lines." Yes, as a libertarian-conservative, I'm disappointed the only libertarian-conservative in the race didn't do better in Iowa.

Come November, non-libertarian conservatives could be disappointed too.

Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul's 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington.

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