A colleague, for whom paleoconservatism is as esoteric as paleontology, recently inquired into the mood of Ron Paul supporters: Do they view his campaign as a worthwhile endeavor, if not a success, or as a bust?
There are nearly as many answers to this question as there are Ron Paul supporters. Even among this website’s contributors and readers, there isn’t anything approaching unanimity when it comes to Paul postmortems. But the Good Doctor’s presidential bid has had some salutary effects, even if we won’t get to see President Paul take the oath of office and actually mean it, much less turn to his two immediate predecessors and announce, “You have the right to remain silent.”
First the good news: Paul attracted a large, impassioned, and surprisingly young grassroots following. Even after dozens of primary defeats, he continues to bring in crowds that rival those of the frontrunning candidates, outdrawing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Georgetown University just this month. Paul has raised millions of dollars, including more than $19 million in the last quarter alone, winning the fourth quarter Republican “money primary.” And though Paul hasn’t done well in many big-state primaries, he has registered double-digit showings in a number of caucuses, likely won more delegates than most media estimates suggest, and finished ahead of every top-tier Republican in at least one contest.
Best of all, Paul has gotten such seemingly antique notions as limited constitutional government, sound money, and the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers unprecedented exposure on the Internet and even in the mainstream media. Not bad, for a “fringe candidacy.”
On to the bad news: Those tens of millions raised, the huge rallies, and the strong online presence raised expectations. Despite successful money bombs, straw poll victories, and big, young crowds on the trail, the Paul campaign has seldom met those expectations where they count most”at the ballot box. Sometimes the Paulites came agonizingly close”a little over three more points apiece in Iowa and New Hampshire would have ensured third-place showings in both pivotal early states, making Paul an indisputable part of the 2008 race narrative. Sometimes, it wasn’t even close, as when Paul finished behind the recently departed Rudy Giuliani in California.
Short of a Paul administration, what would success have looked like? First, a solid enough showing to demonstrate that even a critical mass of Republicans had turned against the war in Iraq”a final nail in the Bush Doctrine’s coffin. Wobblier Republicans like Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee might have been encouraged to continue their early gestures toward foreign-policy independence. Even more reliable hawks like John McCain might have felt constrained in widening the war. And the entire debate would have been freed from its artificial red-team/blue-team boundaries.
Second, a strong enough showing to force Republicans (and enterprising Democrats) to pander to Paulites on other issues. Even as few as a million primary votes”the number Alan Keyes won in 2000″would have been the beginnings of a formidable constituency for smaller government. Early signs of success were enough to win favorable press in the Wall Street Journal and Newsmax, the latter publishing a cover story that argues that Paul might be onto something when it comes to government-cutting, if not all that wacky antiwar stuff. These examples suggest that even if mainline Republicans had tried to co-opt Paul without rethinking foreign policy, it still might have nudged the conservative movement in the right direction.
Third, the Paul campaign could have succeeded simply by doing well enough to establish that there is an identifiable “Ron Paul” wing of the Republican Party. In 1988, Pat Robertson’s failed bid for the GOP nomination helped identify conservative Christians and organize them in an effective national pressure group. Paul could have done the same for libertarian, antiwar, and small-government conservative Republicans.
Some of these goals may still be achievable. Paul did start something of an intra-Republican war debate, albeit against the party’s will. Libertarians and less statist conservatives will be looking for Paul’s donor lists when the campaign is over. Some people already identify as Ron Paul Republicans. But none of these objectives have been realized to the extent that once seemed possible.
In Iowa, some polls found that a small majority of registered Republicans wanted to withdraw from Iraq within six months. Yet Paul won 10 percent of the vote there”not bad, but nowhere close to the 51 percent that could reasonably be described as antiwar. In New Hampshire, Paul actually lost self-described opponents of our current Iraq policy to John McCain of all people. That’s the same McCain who would be “fine with” a 100-year presence in Iraq.
Since Super Tuesday, Paul’s share of the vote in most primaries has settled into the 3-to-5 percent range. Paul advertised in Arkansas, a state most of the top-tier Republicans had ceded to Huckabee, and still managed to win just 5 percent of the vote. He also went on the air in Tennessee, where he did only slightly better with 6 percent of the final tally.
What went wrong? Some of the problems had little to do with the candidate or his campaign. Huckabee’s rise into the top tier absorbed the media’s limited attention for candidates other than Rudy McRompson. Mitt Romney’s poor showings in the primaries forced him to devote resources to caucuses like Maine and Alaska, where Paul had his best chances for victory. Four of the five original candidates who were trailing Paul dropped out before the first ballots were cast. Only Duncan Hunter stayed in to take his beating.
But a successful presidential campaign must do more than rise above the also-rans. Paul’s message was often mismatched with the Republican primary electorate. Sometimes, as Paul Gottfried documents, the problem was with Paul. Often it was with the increasingly big-government, “invade the world, invite the world” GOP. Either way, Paul frequently did not campaign as if he were trying to win over the major voting blocs that actually reside in the Republican Party.
In the Jan. 14 American Conservative, I observed that paleoconservatives are divided tactically: some prefer to work within the larger conservative movement; others hope to replace that movement with a Real Right; others still think it best to forge a Left-Right coalition against the neocons. By running for the Republican presidential nomination, for better or worse Paul chose to adopt the first strategy. In practice, his campaign often seemed to translate into an effort to follow the third.
Much of the “Ron Paul cured my apathy” vote came from the same well that feeds Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. And indeed, some Paul supporters saw themselves competing with Obama for votes more than with Huckabee or Romney”not a winning strategy in Republican primaries. Paul appealed to young progressives who suspected”rightly, as it turned out”that the Democrats are not serious about ending the war or substantially changing the country’s foreign policy. They make good allies on an ad hoc basis; occasionally they might make good converts to a more principled conservatism. But failing the latter, they don’t make promising recruits for an intellectually coherent movement.
Some of these young progressives have become interested in fiscal and monetary policy; a few of them have had their minds opened to the Old Right. But not enough of them have entered the Republican electoral process to make Paul a stronger contender. It is doubtful the influence of recent former Obama supporters will make itself felt in other identifiably conservative ways.
This is all new territory for paleos. Bill Maher didn’t praise Pat Buchanan during his Republican presidential bids. Neither “The Daily Show” nor “The Colbert Report” existed in 1992 or 1996, but if they did, it is hard to imagine they would have welcomed Buchanan with open arms back when he was at the peak of his influence among conservatives. Paul did much better at winning favorable coverage from smart liberal hipsters, but Buchanan enjoyed far more success in the primaries because his ties to populist conservatives in the pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-tax movements (and even talk radio) were stronger. Even if there is no such thing as bad publicity, not all publicity translates into an equal number of votes.
Yet there remains one area where Paul’s revolution can eclipse the Buchanan brigades. Between Buchanan’s three presidential campaigns, relatively little effort went into movement-building. Few like-minded Republicans entered primaries and ran for office. No Buchanan caucus, however small, was built in Congress. The millions shouting “Go Pat Go!” were not taking their pitchforks and storming state legislatures or city halls. If the Paul movement can persevere and cohere”neither of which is certain”it can go beyond a cult of personality and be a beginning rather than an ending.
This could be true even if Paul doesn’t run as a third-party candidate. Let’s face it: While it would give us all someone to vote for, Paul probably hasn’t done well enough in the Republican primaries to have much impact if he fought to November. We can hope that his vote totals will improve once he can reach beyond members of George W. Bush’s party, and we can certainly point to some encouraging poll numbers.
But the early polling was encouraging when Buchanan bolted the GOP in the fall of 1999. In November 2000, he won just 0.4 percent of the vote, barely beating Harry Browne. The antiwar liberals, burned by Ralph Nader, will be reluctant to vote third-party. Especially if Obama is the Democratic nominee, few of them will want to feel responsible for electing President McCain. And although large numbers of conservatives are now insisting they can’t vote for McCain, if the presidential election is close most of them will be unable to resist the temptation.
Most of Paul’s media attention, even from liberals, has come from the fact that he is a Republican saying things about the Iraq war that Republicans are not supposed to say. Take away the GOP affiliation, and most of that attention will vanish. The Libertarian Party or Constitution Party nominee will not appear on “The View.” A third-party candidate probably won’t be invited on “Meet the Press” and certainly won’t be included in the debates.
Paul would probably do just well enough to be blamed for whatever happens”if McCain is elected he will be criticized for splitting the antiwar vote; if a Democrat is elected he will be attacked for splitting the conservative vote”without changing the country’s political dynamics. The kind of change we’re looking for can’t be achieved in one election”it will take many elections, for many offices, and an intellectual movement outside electoral politics entirely. Keeping Ron Paul in Congress and electing more people like him, even as the GOP keeps trying to recruit more Chris Pedens, will contribute more to these goals than breaking Ed Clarke’s record as top Libertarian Party vote-getter.
The challenge that awaits the thousands of activists who have been inspired by Dr. Paul isn’t to run and register under a new third party as the number of dedicated constitutionalists in Congress is reduced to zero. It is expanding the ranks of Ron Paul Republicans”and small-government supporters of all stripes”in a hostile political climate. That takes more than one man. It requires a real movement.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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