For the second Republican presidential campaign in a row, Ron Paul is an enigma.
Here’s a guy who rakes in a whole lot of cash, only to finish in the middle of the pack or worse in most of the primaries and caucuses he participates in. The last time out, he turned his back on the GOP nominee, choosing to endorse a number of minor party participants. There’s no guarantee he won’t do the same this time, leaving establishment Republicans to fret that Paul may consider a third-party run.
Should Paul eventually decide to do so, he’ll have a significant and passionate base to begin from for a general election, where independents and disaffected Democrats would be allowed to participate. A large percentage of those who follow him say it’s either Paul or nothing – “There’s no one worth voting for,” said one young South Carolina supporter. Paul’s cult of personality is not unlike that of another 2008 candidate who’s running again this time around – for re-election.
There’s no doubt the policies are quite a bit different between Ron Paul and Barack Obama, but Ron Paul has a little bit of a shadowy past himself as evidenced by the newsletter flap. Obviously there’s no real comparison between that and the lack of interest by the media about certain holes in Obama’s record, particularly his college transcripts, but the pamphlets from two decades ago aroused the suspicion of a number of groups and fostered a narrative that Paul was anti-Semitic.
Yet here’s another similarity between Paul and Obama – their chosen electoral strategy.
In 2008, the overall Democratic primary popular vote was essentially split between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Each won about the same number of primaries in various states, with Obama running strongly in most of the South and Clinton doing best in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. Since there was no national primary and a dispute regarding how much support Obama would have received in Michigan, where he and several other candidates withdrew from the ballot in a protest against Michigan flouting Democratic Party rules and holding its primary too early, there’s no way of knowing for sure who had the higher popular vote total but it’s agreed both got somewhere between 16 million and 19 million votes apiece.
But in the quest for the nomination under the rules in place at the time, Barack Obama took advantage of the fact a number of mainly smaller states held Democratic Party caucuses and nominating conventions instead of spending the money on a primary election. Out of that share of states, Obama won the lion’s share with only American Samoa and New Mexico bucking that trend. While individually those caucuses were small potatoes, winning such a large share of them was enough for him to clinch the nomination.
Because Ron Paul has a small but extremely passionate fan base it would be no shock to see him win in a number of these smaller caucus states. We’ve already seen this sort of result occur where high-profile straw polls are concerned, but in the real race this assumes, of course, the establishment which runs each state party apparatus will allow this – Ron’s backers have a point regarding the devious techniques sometimes used against the upstart Texan. Yet if Paul doesn’t have to work as hard to get his supporters out to the caucuses as the others do, so be it – if the others want to win they have to motivate their backers as well. Some do a good job of that and others are relatively uninspiring by comparison.
Yet the Paulbots seem to want to have their cake and eat it, too. More than most, it seems to me that if Paul wins they believe that legitimizes their candidate regardless of the circumstances but if they lose it’s always because the system was rigged against them somehow – they didn’t get as much time in the debates, the media misrepresents their candidate in some way, they were shut out of the process, and so on and so forth. Of course, if their guy doesn’t get the nomination they’ve threatened to say home, just like that young voter I quoted earlier.
But if you look at the impact of Ron Paul on the race, it’s not necessarily going to be counted in the votes; instead I think it will be much like Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run. It was obvious fairly early in that cycle that Lyndon Johnson would ride the assassination of John F. Kennedy to victory, so in essence the 1964 campaign was a sacrifice on the part of conservatives which eventually paved the way for future victories – after that, the GOP slowly and steadily moved away from the Northeastern moderates which were led by Nelson Rockefeller and embraced a conservative philosophy of governance expressed by Ronald Reagan.
Where Paul differs from Republican orthodoxy exploits a developing schism between neoconservatives who have espoused a foreign policy which more aggressively defends American interests abroad and has led us into actively fighting Islamofascism at its source and, in the words of Pat Buchanan, a more “traditionalist conservative” approach that reserves the projection of military power for more self-defensive purposes. (Buchanan also believes Ron Paul is an “authentic” conservative.) Paul also shows his libertarian tendencies in proposing deeper spending cuts than his peers, a stance which would cheer TEA Party participants. But critics point out that Paul isn’t immune to grabbing earmarks for his district, which may lead to questions about how seriously he would follow through on his approach when it’s certain that some Republican legislators in swing districts would hear about unpopular budget cuts.
Of course part of the issue regarding the rightsizing of government comes from the need to educate average Americans on the benefits of liberty. Ron Paul is a lightning rod for criticism from all sides, and it’s said that a leader is the one who gets the arrows.
Whether he is defeated in the primary process or helps lead to a defeat in the general election, the trouble with Paul is not with the candidate himself, but with his flock of fawning followers who threaten to take their ball and go home. Much as I’d love it to be, politics isn’t generally a pure process of either achieving a perfect pro-liberty state where the government knows its place or sliding into the abyss of statism – within our system changes tend to come slowly and incrementally. We did not lose all the liberty we have thus far in just the three years since Barack Obama took office, as he’s simply continuing a process which I argue has gone on for close to a century and others trace back even farther.
Let’s face the fact: Ron Paul will not be our 45th president. He has no chance of victory because his base, while passionate, isn’t very large. If you don’t believe that, please review these results again: 21% in the Iowa caucus, 23% in the New Hampshire primary, and 13% in the South Carolina primary. People thought the 25 percent ceiling Mitt Romney had was a problem so what is 23 percent in a primary open to Democrats and independents defined as?
But by saying that, I don’t mean to say many of the needed reforms he has advocated will lose with him. Instead, some of these are goals which we need to apply ourselves to achieving with or without the titular leadership of Ron Paul. I encourage those who fervently support Paul to be more active in the process, for that’s how real change will occur. No question there will be a lot of debate over a whole lot of issues and neither side will be satisfied.
We’ve seen what happens when liberals overplay their hand, particularly since America is a center-right country as a whole. Our side just needs to start moving the ball, and not getting everything they want should not be the signal for Paul supporters to cede the field to the centrists when they have a lot to offer.
No one said the revolution would be quick.