Who's Afraid of Ron Paul?

Should the libertarian Republican be kept out of the presidential debates?

The presence of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) in the Republican Party debates between presidential contenders this year has been treated as, at various time, a curiosity, a nuisance, and a springboard for scoring patriotic points—as when Rudy Giuliani accused him of blaming America for the September 11 attack. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ignored him altogether when he wrote, commenting on the second debate, that with the exception of John McCain every candidate spoke in favor of torture. A Washington Post editorial after the first debate suggested that the debates would be much better if they weren't "cluttered" by nobodies like Paul. After the second debate, Michigan Republican party chairman Saul Anuzis said that he would he start a petition among Republican National Committee members to ban him from further debates because his antiwar views were out of tune with the party.

Yet, while Paul's views are decidedly unorthodox, he represents an important segment of the Republican coalition that is too rarely seen on today's political stage. Paul, a 72-year-old physician who ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988 before winning a House seat as a Republican in 1996 over strong opposition from the GOP establishment, is the most prominent libertarian conservative in U.S. politics today.

In the first debate broadcast on MSNBC on May 3, Paul "cluttered" the debate with refreshingly strong, unapologetic statements articulating a pro-liberty vision. Thus, on the question of cutting taxes, Paul repeatedly emphasized that "you can only do that if you change our ideas about what the role of government ought to be": "If you think that government has to take care of us, from cradle to grave, and if you think our government should police the world and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a foreign policy that we cannot manage, you can't get rid of the IRS; but, if you want to lower taxes and if you want the government to quit printing the money to come up with shortfall and cause all the inflation, you have to change policy." (More than once, Paul stressed that excessive government spending leads not only to higher taxes but also to the hidden tax of inflation.)

Paul (who is pro-life) also had the only principled libertarian response to the question of federal funding for stem cell research: "The trouble with issues like this is, in Washington we either prohibit it or subsidize it. And the market should deal with it, and the states should deal with it."

Paul's troubles began in the second debate on May 15, when, in the course of advocating a non-interventionist foreign policy in the old Republican tradition, he was asked if the case for non-interventionism had changed in the wake of September 11. Paul replied:

"Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East—I think Reagan was right. We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics." Asked by one of the moderator if he was "suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack," Paul replied, "I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said, 'I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier.' They have already now since that time ... killed 3,400 of our men, and I don't think it was necessary."

Giuliani was quick to condemn the "extraordinary statement ... that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq" and demanded a retraction. Instead, Paul tried to make a more general argument about blowback, pointing to the CIA intervention in Iran in 1953 and its relationship to the Islamic revolution and the 1979 hostage crisis. But the damage to his case had already been done—enough to label him, in many people's eyes, as a flake from the blame-America-first camp.

Paul's comments on the dangers of interventionist foreign policy represent a conservative philosophy with a long and respected history. Yet his opinions also illustrate the limitations of that viewpoint. In the first debate, Paul contrasted our entanglements in Third World countries that pose no military threat to us with the fact that "we stood up to the Soviets [who] had 40,000 nuclear weapons." But American foreign policy in the Cold War was decidedly an interventionist one, requiring massive and expensive commitments from the federal government. Paul cited Vietnam, where we lost 60,000 people in a war and where we now have a good business relationship with the communist regime; yet such a relationship is possible due to the defeat of the Soviet empire of which that regime is no longer a part—a defeat that, most likely, would not have been possible without American interventionism.

The case for non-interventionism in the Middle East is problematic as well. One American policy that undoubtedly drives anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world is our support of Israel, not only monetary and military but moral. But while Israeli actions certainly do not deserve unqualified support, it still remains a lone (if flawed) outpost of liberal Western values in a region dominated by religious and political dictatorships. What's more, there is a strong argument that, in today's globalized world, totalitarian movements rooted in religious extremism would inevitably threaten U.S. interests and safety if left unchecked by American power.

But these are arguments that should be on the Republican table, not pushed beyond the pale by moral posturing about an alleged insult to the victims of September 11. And surely as we contemplate the debacle in Iraq, Paul's criticisms of reckless foreign entanglements and nation-building commitments have a strong resonance.

In the wake of the second presidential debate, conservative punditry mobilized to label Paul a crackpot—much the way Barry Goldwater was once labeled by what conservatives now dismissively call "the MSM" (mainstream media)—and even to ban him from Internet polls. This attempt to enforce the party line is petty and regrettable. Paul has no chance of winning the nomination; but he certainly has a good chance to enrich the debates.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor for reason.

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