The Case for Ron Paul
In case it weren’t already apparent from the sarcastic exclamation point, the title of this series of columns is intended to be cynical. With the Republican Primary over and a bit of time left before the general election really heats up, this is a good point to explain the boundaries of that cynicism.
Claims that a certain election is “the most important of our lifetime!” are usually made by someone with an interest in making that claim—either a candidate trying to scare supporters into giving time, money, or votes, or analysts or reporters trying to attract readers and viewers. Mocking that phrase isn’t meant to imply that presidential elections aren’t important. The next president will decide whether or not we go to war, who sits on the Supreme Court, and where we shift the benefits and burdens of governing the country, after all.
I also do not mean to claim, as some do, that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. While there are far too many issues on which the political elite of both parties has formed a consensus, the differences between Democrats and Republicans are many and important. Instead, the reason I believe that the importance of this election in particular is overstated is because there is so little difference among Democrats and among Republicans, or at least among those broadly acceptable enough to win their party’s nomination to be president. In other words, the difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush is substantial, but it is not much different than the difference between Bush and Kerry, or Obama and McCain, or Obama and Romney. Every election ends up being contested over the same issues, and has nearly the exact same stakes. (Of course, some elections end up being more consequential than others in hindsight—the world would be a very different place if Gore had been president following September 11th instead of Bush).
It is for these reasons that the least talked about player in this year’s Republican Primary is also the most important. Throughout the primary, Ron Paul has taken positions on issues such as American foreign policy and the drug war that are not only shockingly progressive for a Republican primary candidate but, indeed, far to the left of the president and the mainstream of the Democratic Party. With President Obama unchallenged in the Democratic primary, Ron Paul is the only voice in the 2012 campaign speaking out against the War in Afghanistan and the most abusive practices in the war on terror, at home and abroad. He is the only voice speaking against the injustice of our criminal justice system, particularly the devastating effects of the bipartisan war on drugs.
Now, there may seem to be a great deal of hypocrisy in that last paragraph. I have been writing about the election for the past three months and have barely mentioned Paul up until this point. Though I think it’s unfortunate that Paul has not received more attention, I do understand why he hasn’t. While his poll numbers have been respectable throughout, he has always been near the ceiling of his support. The post-9/11 Republican Party was never going to nominate a candidate who says Al Qaeda hates us because of our foreign policy and not because of our freedom. I do not believe—as Jon Stewart suggests in this clip—that Paul could have been a contender if the media had treated him as such. Giving more attention to Paul would necessarily bring more attention to those factors that disqualify him for many Republicans.
But the same factors that make Paul unelectable in a Republican Primary are what make him such an important figure. Paul was, at least, a factor in the Republican Primary—he nearly won the Maine caucus, and was even a threat to win the Iowa caucus. And yet he’s also someone for whom a credible case can be made for progressive support. Paul’s ability to garner support from the far-left, far-right, and formerly apathetic shows the potential to shake up the coalitions that currently define both parties, which could force a debate over issues that are currently off the table.
It troubles me to put forth Paul as some kind of antidote for the flaws in our political system. The man’s own flaws are enormous. I could not disagree with him more strongly on issues like the government’s role in regulating the economy, the Civil Rights Act, or abortion rights. The vile newsletters he allowed to publish under his name alone should disqualify him from being president. But the reason we should not immediately dismiss Paul despite his outrageous flaws is his willingness to speak honestly about the policy-based flaws of our other leaders, indeed our entire political system, that should outrage us but that we have simply learned to live with.
My personal preference is that a serious challenge to the political consensus would come from a down-the-line progressive like Dennis Kucinich or Bernie Sanders. (Full disclosure—unlike fellow Construction blogger Ben Hoffman, I did not support Kucinich when I had the chance. My own vote in the ‘04 and ‘08 primaries was actually shameful). Unfortunately, down-the-line progressives hold no appeal to conservatives, and so are easily dismissed by the right and taken for granted by the left. While Paul came up short as far as really influencing the Republican primary, at his strongest moments he showed the potential for building a coalition that both parties would have to take seriously. Paul himself is not the answer, but we need more figures like him to push the debate in new directions. Ron Paul as a major party candidate for president would be hugely consequential, both in good ways and bad—a threat to both the regulatory state and safety net and to the prison and military industrial complexes. That truly would be the most important election of our lifetime.