Portraits of Congressman Ron Paul, Republican
of Texas, invariably descend into cliché – he is "Dr.
No," he’s against subsidies even
for his own district, he’s a libertarian Don Quixote – but, then
again, clichés are what the conventional wisdom is made of, and so
we are told Rep. Paul’s run
for the White House is a fool’s errand. He’s a "fringe" candidate,
he has "no chance," he’s just doing this to annoy the folks over at
Corner" – this is what the mostly Washington-based cognoscenti
of political punditry are telling us. Yes, even the ostensible
"libertarians" over at the Cato Institute, one of whom sneered:
"The Republican debate in California last night showed that
the field of candidates still lacks a Reagan-style small-government
conservative among the top tier of candidates. The candidates
invoked Reagan's name at least 19 times, but one had to go all the
way down to Rep. Ron Paul's quixotic campaign before someone
reflected Reagan's commitment to limited government."
Never mind that the Reagan administration’s commitment to limited
government was purely
rhetorical, and that it never did anything to actually
roll back the state: after all, the Catoites live and work in
Washington, D.C., where partisan myths are sonorously uttered and
routinely believed. However, this business about "all the way down"
clearly denotes the attitude that Rep. Paul is
beneath notice, and certainly doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously
by the notoriously haughty Deep Thinkers over at
Cato. (Say, aren’t these the same folks who are now telling us that
twenty-five years of libertarian activism and scholarship have led
to the growth of government, and "this isn’t as
bad as it seems"?)
I don’t mean to pick on the Cato Institute – well, actually, I
do mean to, but didn’t intend to give in to the temptation so
readily. Yet my point is that if even these (former) stalwarts of
libertarianism are sneering at Paul, then their disdain is but a
pale reflection of an even
harsher elite opinion: in any case, all agree that Paul is going
The conventional wisdom says that Ron Paul hasn’t got a chance –
but this Washington-centric "wisdom" has been spectacularly
wrong in recent years, notably about the invasion of Iraq.
Before the war, "everybody"
knew Saddam harbored "weapons of mass destruction." Those of
us who doubted
this were, by definition, outside the "mainstream" – i.e.
relegated to the "fringe." And remember how the Washington wags were
all so certain
we’d be greeted with showers of rose petals and hailed as
"liberators"? They were wrong
about that one, too.
This same smug
certainty – the Greeks had a word for it: hubris
– fuels their present domestic political prognoses, starting with
inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s coronation as the Democratic
standard-bearer. No one predicted the rise of Obama-mania,
just as no one is exhibiting the
least bit of imaginative punditeering in positing the rise of a
parallel phenomenon in the GOP. Not that Rep. Paul has much in
common with the Obama-glamorous
Barack – except, perhaps, a certain authenticity,
or at least (in Obama’s case) a reflection of the popular yearning
Just as the District of Columbia know-it-alls were wrong on all
counts about the war – its rationale and its results – so
they are seriously underestimating the war’s effect on the domestic
political scene. The pundits are discussing the presidential race as
if we were at peace. Oh, sure, they devote a lot of attention to
analyzing where the candidates stand on basic foreign policy issues,
but they don’t yet seem to understand that the election will surely
be all about the war in Iraq – if, by that time, we haven’t already
gone to war with
The war over the war is about to commence, and the
interventionists are braced to take on challenges to their hegemony
percolating in both major
My guess is they’ll barely manage to hold on to their bipartisan
monopoly, which has so far successfully managed to ensure that the
Democrats and Republicans remain the "left" and "right" wings,
respectively, of a single party, i.e. the War Party.
Wars are transformative
events, and all sorts of partisan and ideological allegiances fall
by the wayside, while new
alliances and political realignments are forged in the heat of
battle. Popular opposition to the Iraq disaster is at an all-time
high, while Bush’s poll numbers have sunk below 30
percent. A delegation of frightened Republican
members of Congress paid a visit to the President the other day,
telling him in blunt terms that they’d had enough
of his war, and it’s time to start withdrawing.
The reckless pursuit of a crazed foreign
policy – centered on leading what the President once hailed as a
democratic revolution" – has brought the GOP to utter ruination.
If even Republican office-holders and party officials are chafing at
the President’s fealty to his neoconservative first
principles, then surely the rank-and-file Republican primary
voters are at least as restless and even rebellious. Polls show over a
third of Republican voters disapprove of the President’s policy, and
nearly a quarter of registered Republicans support a timetable for
American withdrawal from Iraq: a hard core of over 10 percent would
cut off war funding.
This is a significant base, in a crowded field: mobilized on
behalf of an antiwar Republican candidate, dissenting GOPers could
pose a serious challenge to neocon dominance of the party. Just as
the Goldwater partisans rose up from the grassroots and routed
Republicans and the
Eastern Establishment from the leadership of the party – and
paved the way for the conservative ascendancy in the GOP – so the Paul campaign could augur
a new libertarian turn in the party’s politics, one more attuned,
ironically, to fiscally conservative and socially liberal "centrist"
voters than any of Paul’s rivals.
Rep. Paul’s cause, however, is not exactly a return to the
Republican party of Barry
Goldwater: he is a true paleo-Republican in that he wants to go
all the way back to the conservatism of Robert A.
Taft. Here is a ten-term
congressman from Texas who remembers what the Republican party used
to stand for – limited
government, the foreign policy
of the Founders, and the preservation
of our old Republic against the Scylla of
domestic tyranny and the Charybdis of
conquests abroad. There is much history here, and, in Paul’s case,
authenticity – he’s a
country doctor, a man who oozes
sincerity, and just the kind of stern yet benevolent figure, brimming with
integrity, who is conceivably capable of leading the GOP out of
its ideological quagmire, and reclaiming its lost heritage.
Paul could conjure a Goldwater moment and revitalize his party.
All he has to do is mount a visible challenge to the sterile
neoconservative orthodoxy. This would scare the bejesus out of the
neocons – and perhaps frighten them back into the Democratic party
they came. That alone would be a great boon to the GOP.
A Republican victory in the next presidential election seems
unlikely no matter who wins the nomination: if Republicans can’t
win the White House this time around, perhaps they’ll be content
with winning back their own souls.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
There’s been a blogospheric
brouhaha over the alleged "manipulation" of online polls by the
Paul camp: when he won the ABC poll, after being initially excluded,
major media began to take measures, such as banning
pro-Paul comments on message boards. The truth is that libertarians
are hardly the most organized group on the planet: getting them
to act in concert is like herding cats. Trust me, I have long
experience in this matter, and I have a very
hard time believing that libertarians have gotten it together
enough to pull off such online stunts, which would take thousands
of participants and a central authority which is conspicuous by
its absence in the movement.
What’s more likely is that there is a disproportionate degree
of support for Ron Paul and his libertarian politics among computer-savvy
people. Back when I was in the Libertarian Party, in the 1970s
and 80s, more than half the party activists in California were
employed in the then-embryonic computer industry. The libertarian
ethos of the internet has been widely remarked on, and it makes
perfect sense that Paul will do well in online polls. Interpreting
this phenomenon is where it gets tricky, however: online support
doesn’t necessarily mean mass support. But the former can do much
to trigger the latter, and that really is the significance of
all this: like much else that first crops up on the internet,
it could be a harbinger of things to come….