Ron Paul: Harbinger or Next Year’s Has-Been?
GWU political scientist John Sides is the latest individual to dispute the thesis that Ron Paul is a revolutionary figure in American politics. My working guess (given the givens about social scientists generally, but not knowing him personally) is that Sides is less sympathetic to Paul’s agenda than a libertarian (on the big L/little l boundary) like me, but all of his points about Paul’s prospects are in line with my thoughts; in brief:
1) He is introducing few new ideas that are gaining any traction, which I will define as “earning the support of a substantial fraction of the American public.” His opposition to the Iraq War and immigration already tap into healthy veins of American public opinion and indeed the views of many Democrats (re: Iraq) and Republicans (re: immigration). So it is unclear that he is having any independent impact. His opposition to federal government programs is in line with Americans’ skepticism of government, but this general skepticism tends to give way to broad support for many specific programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and most forms of gun control. The American public is not consistently libertarian and Ron Paul’s doctrinaire species of libertarianism is unlikely to win favor. …
2) His ideas and electoral support are not causing the other Republican candidates to change their strategy. Independent candidates and third parties can sometimes force the two major parties to tack in their ideological direction. If so, even if they lose, as they almost always do in American politics, they can still have an effect. Paul is if anything, having the opposite effect. His opposition to the Iraq War and the Patriot Act only encourages his fellow Republican candidates to defend Iraq and the War on Terrorism by beating up on Paul. If Paul runs as an independent, this could change, but I suspect that either party’s nominee can respond effectively with cheap talk — i.e., they will minimize defections to Paul with rhetoric rather than with any substantive shift in their goals or issue positions.
3) Most importantly, he is not building any infrastructure that would ensure his impact can survive the 2008 campaign. By infrastructure, I mean a formal organization, and one that is committed to something other than Paul himself. Indeed, he is doing the opposite. His campaign is driven by grassroots supporters, who, taking advantage of the Internet’s ability to lower transaction costs, raise money and organize events. Such a “bottom-up” campaign is a noteworthy departure from traditional campaigns, but different does not mean better in this case. What will remain when his campaign folds? Little, it would appear, unless he is planning a new political organization or party. Will his supporters constitute a political force? If he is not going to lead an organization of some kind, then likely they will not, especially those of his supporters who are otherwise politically alienated or inactive.
I think the third point in opposition to Paul is the most salient to many libertarian-leaning voters. We’ve consistently seen libertarian presidential candidates run for office without leaving behind any infrastructure for the future success of the movement; arguably the only libertarian figure of any stripe to have a meaningful impact on national politics in modern history is Barry Goldwater, and the support infrastructure he and his supporters built was hijacked by the statist-conservative Richard Nixon in the late 60s and the Christian Right in the 70s after Nixon’s fall from grace. Paul has shown none of the wherewithal in his past Libertarian Party presidential run or during his two decades of congressional service, other than building a reputation as “Dr. No” and having his snout at the trough for his district like all 534 of his other colleagues.
On another (related) Ron Paul note, I think those conservatives who took Paul’s comments on Meet the Press about the possibility of Iran invading Israel as coming from ignorance about Iranian military capabilities miss the point; it’s not that Paul doesn’t think Iran is a threat to Israel, it’s that Paul doesn’t care whether or not Iran is a threat to Israel. If nothing else, his isolationism is consistent. Oh, and he’s at best a neoconfederate sympathizer too. What’s not to love?