Ron Paul, Ideology, and the So-Called GOP Establishment
It’s taken four years, but the Ron Paul Moment is upon us just in time for the Iowa caucuses. Is his rise a perfect storm within the Republican Party?
It could be short memory, but it truly seems that the word “surge” has never been so effusively and incessantly used to describe a succession of rising (and subsequently imploding) presidential candidates. And, as the historiography of the Republican primary field is now littered with a gratuitous number of flubs, denials, meltdowns, and exits, Ron Paul–the ultimate dark horse candidate–is seizing the spotlight like an early Christmas gift.
Of course, part of being taken seriously as a presidential candidate requires receiving a proper vetting from the media. Sure, Paul has been poked and prodded before, but usually the media has had to defend itself against accusations that it is ignoring Paul rather than depicting or challenging him unfairly. Now that’s starting to change, and with Paul finally being accepted as at least a serious ‘spolier’, the scrutiny is proving to be a lot more thorough than before.
One of the main starting points for this scrutiny are newsletters Paul published some 20 years ago that contained prejudiced or inflammatory language about blacks, welfare, civil rights, and AIDS. As the New York Times reports, Paul has had to answer for this controversy on multiple occasions, and though he has disavowed the derisive passages at issue, he maintained in a 2008 CNN interview that he “[did] not know who wrote those things.” In a CNN interview this morning, Paul reiterated that he disavowed the offensive newsletters but was not the author of them. When pressed by host Ali Velshi, Paul said the media “ought to look at the whole picture” and pointed to his criticism that drug enforcement laws are racist as proof that he isn’t prejudiced.
So, like many of his fellow primary candidates, Paul feels there is a mainstream media bias against him. But although critiques of Paul span the political spectrum, right wing and neoconservative media are at the heart of a drive to de-legitimize his candidacy. As the Times article reported, the neoconservative wellspring that is The Weekly Standard published a reprisal of the newsletter controversy. At redstate.com, Leon H. Wolf has posted a collection of videos that suggest Paul more than sympathizes with 9/11 conspiracy theorists. And Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at the National Review, published an editorial for Bloomberg.com detailing all the ways in which Paul is a veritable fringe candidate.
While the evidence used to discredit Paul often pertains to the very nature of his beliefs, it is remarkable that conservatives are depicting him as a radical at a time when much of the Republican Party is, in fact, quite radicalized on an array of electoral issues. If it weren’t for his apostasy on Israel, his neo-isolationism, and his propensity to indulge conspiracy theories, Paul would be in lockstep with the Tea Party base of the Republican Party. Indeed, his anti-tax, anti-spending, pro-business views comprise the Tea Party’s foundation. He may often be dismissed as a whack job within his own party, but elements of his borderline right wing anarchism are shared by many GOP congressional freshmen.
However, if the upshot of Ponnuru’s assessment of Paul is that he is too extreme for the broader Republican and moderate electorate, that may well be true. More than any perceived “otherness,” Paul’s biggest liability is what one might call the latent heartlessness of right wing libertarianism. While congressional Tea Party-ers have been trying to dramatically reduce and revise the structure of government programs like social security and medicare, Paul stands above and beyond in his radicalism. Paul doesn’t see American society through a lens that accounts for evolving cultural norms and expectations about how to collectively and legislatively reduce ills like poverty and racism. Instead, he sees American society as a something that can and ought to revert back to a less interdependent way of life, where the social compact between society and the federal government is effectively eradicated.
This radicalism was on display during a campaign stop in New Hampshire last night, where a woman challenged Paul on his belief that charity provided by doctors was an adequate substitute for Medicaid when 33 percent percent of American children depend on it and another 10 percent remain uninsured. In his response Paul maintained that cutting spending–including social programs–was necessary in order to save the country from “going down the tubes.” He then repeated his mantra that, “We’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves or assume responsibility for ourselves.” It’s a notion that assumes that the microcosm of society–the local community, the local medical practice, the family itself–is best suited to provide when there’s need. What Paul seems to ignore is the fact that many communities across the country don’t have the resources (human, professional, structural, and financial) to improve their standard of living on their own. Paul disputes the very principle–one that was, until recently, generally bipartisan–that the federal government has some moral responsibility for the disadvantaged.
So, what would a Ron Paul win in Iowa mean for the Republican Party? During the debates the candidates have all coalesced around an anti-Obama message where even Paul is temporarily accepted as one of the gang. But scratch deeper and this race is really about the future of the Republican Party, and there are divisions that belie the common rhetoric. Sure, one could write off a Paul victory as a fluke pulled off by zealous activists and deem the Iowa caucus as increasingly irrelevant to the nominating process. But a Paul win would force the Republican establishment to recognize the mediocrity of its field and the electorate’s dissatisfaction with it. At the same time, a Paul win would indicate that in a race where all of the main candidates are very right wing save for Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, the electorate went ahead and opted for the candidate most consistent in his ideology. As we have learned through the unrelenting obstructionism of the current GOP House, ideology doesn’t make for especially practicable–let alone good–governance. Thus, a Paul win would viscerally demonstrate the primacy of ideology within the Party and yet reveal how unpredictable and uncontrollable the appeal of ideology can be. Even if Paul fails to mobilize enough supporters to pull a second upset, his influence is enough to prove how unruly and angry the Republican coalition truly is.
This article has been amended to correct a statistic about Medicaid and the uninsured.
[Photo via wikimedia commons.]
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