The straw poll victory of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, with a plurality of 31 percent, spurred a wide range of reaction and emotions. If you weren’t already a fan of the radically libertarian Republican congressmen, his victory wasn’t the thing to make you start taking him seriously.
Many agreed that Paul’s win, if meaningful, could only bode ill for the Republican Party’s prospects. David A. Harris at TalkingPointsMemo thinks Paul’s ascendance means the GOP is determined to give up on the Jews (since Paul has suggested that certain U.S. foreign policy decisions benefit Israel more than they benefit the U.S.). Earl Ofari Hutchinson at Huffington Post thinks Paul’s win means racism and nativism is on the rise in the GOP, as he fantasizes about non-existent race-based jibes in Paul’s CPAC speech.
In the real world, Paul’s speech was mostly about fiscal probity and saving the U.S. from a debt-driven dollar collapse. Paul applied principles of limited government and restrained spending to a place where most Republicans fear to tread: foreign policy. He stressed the vital importance of the free exchange of ideas, including a long shout-out to Eugene Debs, the socialist leader jailed by Democratic god Woodrow Wilson for saying the wrong things, and freed by Republican President Warren Harding.
Paul talked to the assembled activists of the unity of liberty, including the liberty to eat and smoke what you want. He harkened back to old Republican icons (such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his military-industrial complex warnings) to give his constitutionalist libertarian version of conservatism a usable past. His talk was rambly, perhaps not ready for prime time, but united by a bracing vision of a government that did only what its Constitution intended it to do. This makes him radical indeed.
That radicalism makes it unsurprising that the Republican assault on Paul in America’s most prominent print outlets had actually ramped up in the week before the CPAC victory. Coincidence, or a subterranean sign that the forces of respectable Republicanism were feeling the pre-shocks of the CPAC Paulquake? In The Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter (now there’s a pedigree that should give you free rein to lecture conservatives about strategy) Michael Gerson openly called for an old-fashioned purge of Paulites (along with “racists and conspiracy theorists” and “acolytes of…Tom Tancredo and Lyndon LaRouche”—neither of them polled double digits at CPAC). Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal pre-emptively referred to Paul’s squad of dedicated activists for small government as “assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged” in the week prior to the surprise CPAC win.
Those who tend to agree with Paul were delighted by his victory, more excited than Paul was himself. Paul told me earlier this week that “I see [the CPAC win] as making progress, but I wouldn’t overblow it. I try to put it into perspective. I probably get more excited about what’s happening when I go to a college campus and get 1,500 students excited about what I’m doing. If they did a national poll of all Republican voters, I mean obviously I’m not going to be running the show.” (Paul still insists he is “firmly undecided” about another presidential run.)
The standard bastions of the right-wing were not amused by the shenanigans of the crazy kids at CPAC, and many noted that Paul’s victory should not be seen as a sign the Republican Party is his for the grabbing. Former presidential candidate and TV talk show host Mike Huckabee wrote off CPAC—that is, many thousands of the most dedicated and engaged political junkies and activists available to the GOP—as being too libertarian and thus irrelevant to his Republican Party. Neocon intellectual chieftain Bill Kristol thinks Paul’s win means nothing; why, Kristol pointed out on Fox News, the majority of those CPAC kids are under 25! Surely, crazy fads sweeping the young and politically motivated have no significance for a political party's future, right?
The lefties at Daily Kos noted that Fox News, the definers of the GOP as a media brand, were not too thrilled about Paul’s victory and dismissed its importance. The American Conservative recognized that while “Ron Paul people” may have had the plurality at CPAC, the widespread boos that accompanied the announcement of his win shows that he was probably widely reviled by the 69 percent who didn’t pick him.
Political analyst Patrick Ruffini at The Next Right has a balanced, non-fan’s perspective that I think gets it about right, explaining what the standard bastions of conservatism should both fear and credit Paul and his fans for:
In 2007, the Paulites were an oppositional force trying to submarine the GOP's commitment to the war on terror, thus threatening traditional conservatives. Today, libertarians and conservatives have come together against Obama's endless expansion of the State, with Ron Paul supporters supplying creative organizing tactics and boots on the ground.
….in terms of grassroots organization, Paul supporters are some of the best—if not the best—that we have. The iconography of the tea party movement is heavily libertarian (think the Gadsden Flag) and that's no coincidence. If you broke down the organizers and even those in attendance [at CPAC], you'd find more than your fair share of Ron Paul supporters. This is a categorical shift that's happened in the last year.
Victory in a CPAC straw poll (which belonged to Mitt Romney the past three years, smacked down this time with 22 percent to Paul’s 31) does not mean national leadership, the nomination, or the presidency. But beyond their affection for Paul himself—the most consistently and radically pro-liberty political figure of any significance on the Republican scene—a poll of CPAC attendees reveals encouraging facts about their general political attitudes: 80 percent claimed their “most important goal is to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens” versus a mere 9 percent whose most important goal was to “promote traditional values” and 7 percent to “guarantee American safety at home and abroad regardless of the cost or the size of government.”
I predicted last September that Ron Paul could well be playing a Goldwater in 1960 role—the first stirrings of a strongly anti-government coalition whose electoral effectiveness won’t become manifest for a while—and the CPAC victory is an encouraging sign in that direction. The usual caveats apply about the unknowability of the future, and the generally predictable pusillanimity when it comes to liberty of both the voters and politicians who have tended to decide the Republican Party’s direction.
Still, it does feel like something is happening, and we don’t know what it is, do we Dr. Paul? I’ve been following Ron Paul’s career since 1988, when my buddies in the University of Florida College Libertarians brought him—then the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate—to our campus to speak. He drew 100 or so people, copped a front page story in the college paper, and fed into my and my comrade’s youthful sense of a subterranean liveliness in ideas and politics that it was still possible to dredge, at least for a moment, to the surface. Swaying masses in that libertarian direction seemed…well, I suppose it was the goal, but in the same sense that interstellar travel might be seen as the “goal” of reading and thinking about science fiction. Libertarian Party politics seemed at best an entertaining vehicle toward the semi-actualization of some wild, hopeful imaginings.
I was pleasantly surprised when Paul won his way through opposition from both Republicans and Democrats back to his Texas House seat in 1996. I first wrote about him as a profile of an entertaining GOP curiosity for the American Spectator in 1999. His political colleagues were alternately confused or amused by him, often good for a pro forma expression of respect for his steadfast refusal to compromise, but he was clearly the sort of anomaly that would just drive party leaders crazy if he multiplied.