Friday, October 05, 2007

Assessing the cult of Ron Paul

What are we to make of Ron Paul, the libertarian antiwar gadfly who wound up raising $5.1 million this summer for his quixotic GOP presidential campaign? Is this guy a budding phenomenon, or is he destined to be a footnote?

The feisty Texas congressman has enjoyed a bit of a media boomlet during the past 48 hours, primarily because he nearly matched uber-hawk John McCain in the third-quarter '07 money sweepstakes. But that story line says more about McCain's embarrassing decline than about any incipient Ron Paul juggernaut. The truth is, the odds of an antiwar candidate winning the Republican nomination are roughly equivalent to the odds of George Steinbrenner wearing a Red Sox cap.

To put Paul's achievement in proper perspective, consider this: The top four GOP presidential candidates (including McCain) all basically support the Bush crusade in Iraq. Together, they raised roughly $34 million during the third quarter. Paul is the lone GOP hopeful who opposes the war; for that (and for some other reasons; see below), he garnered $5.1 million.

There is definitely some antiwar sentiment within the ranks of GOP conservatives and conservative-leaning independents. Libertarians, as a matter of principle, resist the idea of big government fighting foreign wars, and Pat Buchanan-style conservatives are instinctively isolationist, as well as skeptical about ambitious dreams to democratize the Middle East. One conservative magazine contended last June that Americans are "tired of the warfare state." But, if the total money tab is any gauge of the overall Republican mood, it's clear that Paul's out-now message appeals only to a limited market.

And I suspect there is only a limited GOP market for a candidate who wants America to pull out of the United Nations (despite the fact that Republicans like to bash the U.N.); who wants America to pull out of most international trade pacts; who wants to eliminate FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, phase out Social Security, and end the federal war on drugs. Mainstream Republicans might indeed dislike the incessant Giuliani/Romney/McCain flip-flops, and many are fighting to stay awake as Fred Thompson continues to underwhelm, but this hardly means they will embrace Ron Paul's inviolate convictions.

In all likelihood, Paul has the potential to make a modest amount of mischief during the early primary season - particularly in a state like New Hampshire, where independents are free to vote in the GOP contest, and where iconoclastic candidates have often been well rewarded (antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy, 1968; conservative populist Buchanan, 1992). The war aside, he could serve as a protest vehicle for small-government conservatives who are fed up with Bush's red ink and runaway spending.

And since he has already demonstrated an ability to attract online donors (reminding some observers of Howard Dean), and raise a lot of heck via his presence on YouTube and MySpace, there's always the possibility that Paul could live off the land long after the GOP contest is over - by resurfacing as third-party candidate. He ran once before, in 1988, as the Libertarian party candidate. The party will meet next spring to choose a standard-bearer; in 2004, it was on the ballot in 48 states.

The long-term danger, for the GOP, is that Paul could exploit the fractures in the conservative camp, and attract enough disgruntled voters to undercut the Republican candidate's victory prospects in November '08. This can be accomplished with only a relative handful of voters. Just ask the Democrats about the 2000 race and the role of Ralph Nader.