10′s Goldwater Moment
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 “The 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 nowhere.
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 the alleged 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 for it.
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 Iran.
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 parties. 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 “global 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 the Rockefeller 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 from whence 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….
IMPORTANT: A SPECIAL NOTE
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