Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Ron Paul matters....

Republican maverick Ron Paul wins a second straw poll and reminds the critics why he matters

By Tim Stanley

Ron Paul reaffirmed his status as a serious contender for his party’s nomination on Saturday by winning the Republican Leadership Conference straw poll. He may not be a serious candidate in the sense that he has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. But he is superbly well organised and funded, and he dominates the affections of the libertarian wing of his party. Some dismiss Ron Paul as a “perennial candidate”. Yet the reason why he keeps on running – this is his third shot at the presidency – is because his constituency is just as perennial as he is.

There were boos in the hall when the results were read out. Paul took 612 votes, Jon Huntsman 382, Michele Bachmann 191 and Herman Cain 104. Mitt Romney, the leader in national polls, took a pathetic 72 and Tim Pawlenty – a politician so bland that he makes Walter Mondale look charismatic – took 18. Neither Romney nor Pawlenty spoke at the event, and questions will be raised about how representative the voters really were. But Paul won the Conservative Political Action Committee straw poll back in February too, which suggests he’s on some kind of a roll. Straw polls don’t count towards the nomination, but they do inspire people to get their check books out. In the first quarter of 2011, Paul raised more money than any other declared contender. His last online “money bomb” appeal netted $1.1 million in one night.

We’ve seen all this before. In 2008, Paul drew large amounts of cash in the months before the primaries, but then vanished when voting started. His band of loyal libertarians is stretched too thinly across the country. There aren’t enough economics professors, Hell’s Angels, college slackers, dynamo-businessmen, pacifists and Aqua-Buddhas in any one state to swing it his way. His hardcore ideology is too socially libertine for religious conservatives and too economically callous for crossover Democrats. His politics fall into a niche parodied by The Onion with this barfly motto: “Fiscally I’m a rightwing nutjob, but on social issues I’m f**king insanely liberal”. Paul complicates this by also being a bit pro-life.

So why won’t Paul go away? His followers will tell you that Ron Paul keeps on winning because he is right on the issues. And he has certainly been vindicated on the subjects upon which he has built his reputation – fiscal policy and war. He was right to predict that the 2008 bailout would distribute public money to irresponsible private institutions and prolong the recession. At the time he was a lone voice. But his “throw ‘em to the wall” philosophy is now Tea Party orthodoxy, and the Republican leadership likes to pretend that it said that all along too. The GOP is even coming around to his way of thinking on war. In the New Hampshire Republican debate, several contenders distanced themselves from the decision to intervene in Libya. Mitt Romney, in the real surprise of the night, pledged to withdraw troops as soon as possible from Afghanistan.

Intellectually, Ron Paul is relevant because he represents a quiet renaissance of American traditionalist thought that predates the Tea Party. After 9/11, a number of Right-wingers evaluated George W Bush and found him wanting. Under his watch, welfare provision and militarism ballooned. While some welcomed this variety of big government conservatism as a necessary adaptation to economic and military crises, others regretted the betrayal of core Republican values that it represented. It is often forgotten that neoconservativism is the recent innovation within the Republican ranks – not Ron Paul. On the contrary, Paul’s anti-statism harks back to a pre-Cold War GOP that was isolationist and laissez-faire in its outlook. Paul’s people can argue, with some validity, that his candidacy is an effort to return to root principles. The historical fundamentalism of the Tea Party – all those men in tricorn hats pretending to be Paul Revere – bodes well for such an enterprise. In 2011, the GOP is trying to forget the futurist hubris of the neoconservatives. Its future may lie in its distant past.

For all its immediate relevance, Ron Paul’s candidacy remains quirky and idiosyncratic. The blame for that rests with the man himself. What elevates Dr Paul above the other candidates deflates him in the polls. At the podium he speaks without notes on whatever subject seems to come into his head. To see him in person is to experience the apocalyptic magic of wild prophecy. His rambling discourse on the moral and economic bankruptcy of America smacks of something missing in modern politics – the truth told honestly and intelligently by a mad old white guy with nothing to lose. He is so real, he’s unreal. His constituency laps it up. But that constituency – while holding a valid claim to Republican orthodoxy – is too small a base from which to launch a triumph of reason. And an ideologue like Paul could never compromise enough to reach beyond it. For the moment, the man and the movement are locked into a passionate conversation to the exclusion of others.


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