Election 2008: What’s a Peacenik to Do?

The appalling presidential election campaign drags on. On Super Tuesday Democrats split almost evenly between Hillary Clinton, a hawk turned slightly dovish, and Barack Obama, an Iraq war opponent who otherwise has found no foreign intervention he opposes. A divided Republican electorate boosted John McCain, an enthusiast of war in the Mideast (Iraq and Iran), Europe (the Balkans), and Asia (North Korea). Electoral laggards Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee match McCain’s rhetoric, but their commitment to at least one war on every continent is less certain.

Amidst this gaggle of warrior wannabees ready to sacrifice American lives for mostly frivolous national “interests,” Ron Paul labors on. The only genuinely anti-war candidate left in the race, he is largely ignored by the media and despised by establishment political interests. He obviously won’t be winning the Republican nomination; he now must decide whether to “go independent” in the general election.

Iraq is the most important issue facing America, but it has largely disappeared from the political debate. Completely absent has been a serious discussion of foreign policy.

Among the major candidates, Obama seems the least bad, since he opposed the Iraq war from the start. None of the original Republican contenders – other than Rep. Paul – got this issue right. Neither did Hillary Clinton, who voted for the war resolution.

Moreover, her vaunted experience as First Lady includes pushing President Bill Clinton to inaugurate war against the Bosnian Serbs and then Serbia for alleged national interests that remain impossible to discern. Indeed, her brilliant handiwork in Kosovo is about to explode yet again, with potentially dire consequences for the West’s relationship with Russia. On Iran she has attempted to trump administration chickenhawks.

Alas, the Republicans are worse. John McCain – an angry, erratic, and tempestuous man who cares little for constitutional constraints – is a nightmare for anyone who believes war, especially aggressive war, is rarely in America’s interest. Mitt Romney talks like an uberhawk, but his rank opportunism allows less militaristic voters to hope that he would toss his professed belligerence overboard if elected. Mike Huckabee combines criticism of U.S. arrogance with support for a massive military build-up, suggesting that he has no idea where he stands.

Making the upcoming contest even more bizarre is the fact that many independents, who tend to oppose the Iraq war and despise the Bush administration, so far have rewarded McCain with their votes. Yet McCain is not just George W. Bush reincarnated. He is Richard Cheney with a heart transplant and on steroids. The only people who should vote for McCain are those who believe President Bush to be a hapless wimp who wasted a great opportunity to attack Iran, Syria, North Korea, and several other countries which proved unwilling to genuflect to Washington’s will.

The prospect of McCain, know as “Senator Hothead” on Capitol Hill, as the GOP nominee makes an independent Ron Paul candidacy – presumably, but not necessarily, for the Libertarian Party – imperative. Rep. Paul is the candidate best situated to provide a home for nominal conservatives who do not want a temperamental warmonger as president but are unwilling to vote for a liberal Democrat.

Although current polls show McCain running even with both Democrats, he remains extraordinarily weak within his own party. When asked about conservative opposition to his candidacy, he responded: “They’ve made their case against me and I think the majority of Republicans have stated their view.” Indeed, they have spoken – and so far the answer has been an emphatic no.

On Super Tuesday eight of ten conservatives voted for Romney or Huckabee. McCain lost 12 of 21 races. Of the nine contests he won, he carried a majority of the vote only in three Northeastern states, none of which he would likely take in November. McCain did not even win a majority in his home state of Arizona. McCain’s large delegate lead reflects the fact that the GOP relies mostly on winner-take-all rules; for instance, he collected all of Missouri’s delegates with 33 percent of the vote. If the Republicans operated with the Democrats’ emphasis on proportionality, McCain’s edge would be far less impressive.

Moreover, even though the professionals proclaim the race decided, Ron Paul continues to draw enough votes to affect the general election. He hit double digits in several caucus states, including 25 percent (and second place) in Montana. In the primaries his three percent in California, four percent in Missouri, five percent in New Jersey, six percent in Tennessee, and eight percent in Colorado all could tip states in which Republicans hope to be competitive in November.

A Paul candidacy would help undercut McCain’s presidential bid in two ways. The first would be to affirm conservative and Republican activists who could not bring themselves to support McCain. A Republican congressman would be abandoning his party to oppose a nominee who no more represents the cause of limited government than does Hillary Clinton. Leading right-wingers would need only stand aloof from the presidential campaign, putting their time and money into other races, to appropriately “reward” McCain for his warmongering, authoritarian, nanny state ways.

The second impact of Paul’s candidacy would be to provide a way station for conservative voters who could not bring themselves to pull the lever for a liberal Democrat. The problem would be particularly acute if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nod – many conservatives would rather undergo multiple root canals than support her. In contrast, conservatives could vote for Paul in good conscience, whether their dissatisfaction with McCain was over his support for promiscuous war-making, attack on the First Amendment, opposition to tax cuts, or fondness for environmental regulation.

While the most important short-term goal is to keep McCain out of the White House, the long-term objective must be to educate the public by making foreign policy an issue. Of course, some liberty advocates complain that Paul is a flawed messenger. True, but no one better is waiting in the wings – Paul has brought the mantra of peace and free enterprise to more voters than has any previous libertarian politician. Only a third party bid by Paul is likely to reach more than a minuscule number of people. He should be able to attract enough media attention and raise enough money to make a serious run.

Moreover, he could magnify his impact by targeting closely divided states. The goal should be not only to make the general case for individual liberty, including a non-interventionist foreign policy. Another important objective would be to cost Republicans several states, attracting enough votes to toss the contests to the Democrats. Only if the GOP realizes that it must compete for the votes of those who believe in peace as well as prosperity will non-interventionists gain a voice. (An independent Ron Paul also should bid for Democratic votes, of course, but a McCain nomination would make it imperative that Paul target the right.)

Advocates of liberty have no major party home. Since 2001 the Republicans have proved to be particularly inhospitable to anyone who believes in both peace and prosperity. The nomination of John McCain should drive away even more of those who support constitutional governance.

They need somewhere to go. The GOP doesn’t want Ron Paul. Come the fall, he should dump the Republican Party into the famous trash can of history. It is time for American politics to offer a choice, not an echo.