Although it might be premature to claim that Ron Paul’s campaign is winding down, plainly the candidate has not done as well as his supporters had expected and as his online fundraising might have foretold. In the wake of disappointing showings in Florida, Michigan, and South Carolina, Daniel Larison wrote a column in The American Conservative (Jan. 28, not online) in which he treats Paul’s run as pretty much over. Larison believes, nevertheless, that the “campaign has the potential to be the start of a movement rather than an enthusiastic fad” and that its “mix of constitutionalism and cultural conservatism with hints of Jeffersonian populism is a powerful, appealing combination.” Unfortunately Paul also has “some of the most unpopular ratings of any Republican,” and beyond ‘his relentless demonization in the Republican media,” he has also suffered from the sharp divide between himself and “roughly two-thirds of the party” over the war in Iraq.
Larison raises sound points, but it is possible to sharpen his critical focus by noting Paul’s other missed opportunities for attracting Republican votes. The Congressman did not really articulate a foreign policy, as opposed to telling Americans that the war in Iraq and almost all other wars the U.S. has engaged in during my lifetime have been “unconstitutional.” His attempt to place the problem of Islamic terrorism entirely at the doorstep of our government, moreover, while based on valid concerns about American overreach, is also clearly an exaggeration. Islamic fundamentalism is a menace whether or not the neocons are trying to exploit it—and particularly given that the multicultural Europeans have allowed Muslim maniacs to get more than a foothold in their countries and that our own border controls have been incredibly lax. Even if Dubya had not launched his war of choice in Iraq, we would still be facing a considerable foreign danger. This is fact Paul should have acknowledged while presenting his own foreign policy and his own measures to insure domestic tranquility.
Paul’s blaming of America for armed crackpots outside our borders has played disastrously among Republican voters, who are often wrong-headed but remain instinctive American nationalists. Paul’s outbursts have also made him seem less than reflective about America’s unavoidable position as a superpower and about the reality that there are groups in the world that mean to do us harm. This is, of course, different from arguing that Bush and his friends have done the opposite of what might have been advisable to deal with our present dangers—for instance controlling our borders instead of fawning on Hispanic voters and not getting entangled in “democratic’ nation-building in Iraq. Still, Paul was right to express his annoyance at mishandled problems, and he was at his best lambasting the neoconservatives as troublemakers.
On the other side of the ledger, the Congressman struck me as a less than effective TV debater, and I found myself wondering why he alternated between ferocity and appearing to be removed from the ongoing discussion. When asked about his views on foreign policy, he would typically snarl at the moderator and then mutter something about this “unconstitutional war.” But then when urged to pose his own questions to the other candidates, he would ask something so esoteric that I had no idea what he was talking about. (In one case, the target of his question, John McCain, looked as puzzled by his query as I was.) Paul is highly educated and never at a loss for words in conversation, but debating on TV is clearly not his forte.
Having been a Monday morning quarterback, let me also stress that I’m not sure Paul would have done much better even if he had taken my advice. Even if he could have transformed himself into a silver-tongued orator with the yuppie looks of Mitt Romney, I don’t think the outcome of the primaries would be significantly different. It is the content of Paul’s old Republican message that is the sticking point, and this would be the case no matter how that message was presented. Unlike the party regulars, the TV pundits, and American (mis)educators, Paul calls for eliminating social programs instead of increasing them, and he disdains anti-discrimination laws and other forms of behavioral manipulation whether introduced by Congress or imposed extra-constitutionally through judicial decree. He is also serious in the matter of sending back illegal immigrants, unlike Hillary, Obama, and McCain, all media darlings, who seem to have never seen an illegal visitor whom they didn’t want to bestow citizenship on. Moreover, Paul is really against nation-building abroad, unlike the New York Times and Washington Post, which regularly showcase “pro-war conservatives.” Indeed these may be the only “conservatives” whom the national press would care to call attention to. On social issues, what have leftist journalists to fear from Bill Kristol, David Frum, and David Brooks? As for wars to spread democracy, that bad idea spread from Clinton and Gore through the neocons to the Republicans. The Times was ecstatic about the vision of Bush and Michael Gerson when the Democrats tried to build a pluralistic, democratic Kosovo in 1999.
When Ron Paul at last caught hell for not giving back money donated by a “white supremacist” and then for not having kept out of his newsletter certain racist remarks that appeared there in 1998, I was not unduly critical of his conduct. What struck me was the feeding frenzy that these presumed slip-ups evoked among the liberal-neocon media and beltway libertarians as opposed to the studied indifference that has greeted Barack Obama’s membership in the Afrocentric Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama’s choice of membership in the congregation of Jeremiah Wright, a pastor whose sermons seemed to have been scripted for Louis Farakhan (and may have been) and the fact that Obama, even according to his enthusiastic well-wishers at the New York Post, has the most leftist voting record of any U.S. senator have sparked less questioning of this “moderate” representative of racial conciliation than Paul’s relatively innocent faux pas. The double standard, which has been outrageously characteristic of the entire political class, tells less about Paul’s ineptitude or Obama’s “moderateness” than it does about who is in power. And for those who haven’t noticed, it’s not Ron Paul’s friends. Until our side can erect our own media infrastructure, the present tropism toward the left and its candidates will continue to operate.
The bright spot in this situation is the likely presidential nomination of John McCain, to the joyous cheers of the neocon journalists, who seem to be faced with an embarrassment of riches, as Fred Barnes has been explaining on FOX and in The Weekly Standard. Poor Fred seems to adore McCain and Obama with equal intensity, and he may have to make a choice between his two superheroes on Election Day. In the best of all worlds, Fred and the rest of the FOX contributors would be able to have the “moderate” black Obama representing what they imagine to be the legacy of MLK at home, while McCain would be free to embroil us in military crusades abroad. In the last few months, Frum, Brooks, and the other paid “house conservatives” have been frantically warning “social conservatives” to get with the program and support what really counts, an aggressively internationalist foreign policy.
But the likely nomination of the “moderate conservative” McCain as the Republican presidential candidate has not thrilled certain usually dependable movement conservatives. Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and the editors of Human Events, all of whom have usually cheered on the GOP, are now piling on McCain. And though they’re strong enthusiasts for the war who have dutifully praised McCain as a war hero, they nonetheless consider him a sell-out on immigration and other issues on which he has made common cause with liberal Democrats. For Southerners he is still remembered as someone who had insisted that South Carolinians desist from flying the Confederate flag on public buildings, a position that put McCain to the left of Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton (at least during Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign). His upsurge of support among party regulars and the decision of the neoconservatives to throw their mouths behind him, in the absence of a thriving Giuliani candidacy, have ignited a war within the conservative movement. But at the present time, that war does not affect our side. It is a struggle going on among those groups that have excluded us from their debate.
Our interest here (to repeat a point that my friend Leon Hadar has already made) is in seeing this strife intensified, until it results, if I may use Obama’s term, in “change.” And this could occur if the fight over McCain’s candidacy continues to divide the strictly neoconservative wing of the movement from those talk radio populists appealing to a predominantly heartland Republican base. Although this cleavage already became apparent during the summer over the immigration question, it has continued to widen as McCain has moved forward to lock up the nomination. If I were a mean-spirited rightwing extremist, I would be happy to see John McCain lose dismally in the forthcoming election. And it would be pleasing to have his defeat attributed to his close association with the neoconservatives.
Although the Democratic contenders are arguably more leftist than McCain, whether or not he is “reaching out” to them, either of these lefties might bring unintended benefits to the Right by getting elected. One possible advantage of getting Hillary or Obama is that inexorable push toward the social left, generally promoted by the American government and the media since the 1960s, might reach a kind of culmination. If the voting patterns that Hillary and, even more, Obama have established in the Senate hold up and if Obama turns out to be even half the whacky, conflicted Afrocentrist-cum-post-racialist that his writings and church membership would suggest, we’ll be in for interesting times. An old Russian proverb might apply to such a situation:” If you hold someone’s head under water long enough, he may decide he doesn’t like it.” The problem here is that the human recipient of the water might also act like the yuppie, multicultural public in Europe who are handing over their countries to Muslims while punishing the “hateful” Christians who notice what is going on. That’s the chance one takes when all hell break loose. But I suspect that we’ll continue to move in the same direction more slowly with McCain, and especially if he embraces the New York Post’s counsel and puts Lieberman on his ticket. Then we may suffer the fate of the lobster being slowly boiled until it suffocates. Of course, a reaction might also set in, if things become worse more quickly and if the neoconservatives are implicated in the defeat of a socially moderate, war-hawk Republican presidential candidate. In that case, the Right will likely grow larger and more vocal.
Ron Paul can aid this effort by staying in the race and by giving us someone to vote for, as a symbolic opposition. Any vote that the real Right bestows on a Democratic candidate would be interpreted by the media as a show of support for the sharp move leftward that the chattering class wishes to see. No one but a few scattered Old Right journalists would make the observation that disgusted conservatives voted for Hillary or Obama to underscore their disgust with the GOP. But a five percent vote for Paul running as a third-party candidate would make the point that we’re opposing McCain as Taft Republicans rather than as advocates of more set asides for minorities or friends of a European-style welfare state. Although Richard Spencer, and not Leon, may be the more accurate predictor of what the proposed McCain candidacy would bring, it is still worth the try. That may be the final service that Congressman Paul could render his now badly disappointed followers.
Paul Gottfried is a professor of the humanities at Elizabethtown College. He is the author, most recently, of Conservative in America: Making Sense of the American Right .