So far in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has more than doubled the number of votes he received in Iowa in 2008, more than tripled his vote count in New Hampshire, and nearly quintupled his vote count in South Carolina.
To achive this, the libertarian-leaning Paul has had to become more slick and political in his campaigning, while retaining credibility by sticking to his specific plan to chop federal spending by $1 trillion dollars. Despite the disappointment many felt about Paul’s third-place finish in Iowa, and Paul's current last-place polling in Florida, Paul has said he's not going anywhere.
The strength of his campaign has forced the other candidates into humiliating and unpersuasive attempts to parrot Paul’s economic policies, his warnings on unsustainable government spending, and particularly his attempt to end the reign of the Federal Reserve. But the policy area in which Paul seems to have the most trouble influencing the conversation is on war and foreign policy, an area where Paul is a staunch anti-interventionist.
Former senator and eventual winner of the Iowa caucus Rick Santorum said during the December 15 Iowa debate in reference to Iran, "they don't hate us because [of] what we do or the policies we have; they hate us because of who we are and what we believe in." He's the new Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City who famously clashed with Paul in a 2008 Fox News debate over the meaning of 9/11 and blowback. But former House Speaker Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are also close to Santorum’s side of things, and they rarely miss an opportunity to grandstand about the Obama administration's supposed failure to protect Americans from terrorists and terror-states.
Like President Obama, none of these three would-be nominees would take any options off the table when it comes to dealing with Iran. On foreign policy, Paul diverges widely from both Gingrich and Romney, who have outpolled him in the first three primary states. Pundits, when they are not condemning his "sheer stupid half-witted parochialism," are fond of urging Paul to turn his foreign policy frown upside down.
So why doesn’t Paul dial back his humble foreign policy beliefs if he wants to really get elected? Paul is running for the nomination of a party whose majority still disapproves of the decision to pull out of Iraq. So why not run as another hawk and then govern as a non-interventionist president? Or why not at least tone down the unpopular non-intervention rhetoric?
Paul clearly dislikes wealth-sapping programs like Medicare and Social Security, but he is just not as fiery in his rhetorical opposition to entitlements as he is in his pleading against a fiat currency and for a peaceful foreign policy. Paul's opponents have begun to exploit this enthusiasm gap.
A few weeks ago Eric Dondero, a former campaign aide of Paul’s (and supposedly a disgruntled one), released a statement that said Paul had wanted to vote “No” on the 2001 Afghanistan invasion. The congressman's staff threatened a mutiny and Paul, obviously outnumbered in Congress anyway, yielded. If that story is true, it heightens Paul's anti-war credibility but makes him even more repellent to a certain type of politician and a certain type of voter. Paul has also dared to sound less than 100 percent certain about the sacred cow of World War II.
Within the confines of a Republican primary season, that makes Paul a radical. But it also makes him consistent. His opposition to war is not just situational but ethical.
Paul’s fellow candidates are also consistent, but not in a manner that suggests deep ethical thought. They are not only opposed to requiring that war be deliberately declared in a manner consistent with the Constitution, they won't even accept the most basic exercise in empathy: that if another country (China is often Paul's example of choice) treated the United States the way that it treats other countries, if China bombed the U.S. or built bases or took any number of intrusive foreign policy actions, we would be angry. This is a moral objection to war, not just a pragmatic one. It demands that you put yourself in the shoes of people who are your potential enemies. During the January 16 South Carolina debate the audience actually booed when Paul suggested a "golden rule" for foreign policy. "We endlessly bomb these countries, then we wonder why they get upset with us," said Paul as the audience audibly disapproved for several more seconds.
Who are the people booing Paul's Christian-tinged foreign policy, and do they really represent the Republican future? A January 26 article on Freedom Daily's website posited that there's a slow shift happening within the Republican party: Forty-six percent of Republicans said that intervening overseas should no longer be something America does frequently. And one consistent feature in the numerous why-do-the-kids-dig-Paul articles is the message that Paul is considered fab because he opposes war—both real war and the war on drugs. Paul, of course, also gets the most monetary support from military members, which he has said is proof that his views are not alienating to voters.
Paul decided to ignore Florida because he was polling dead last. He'll keep on running, but the odds are he won't be the Republican candidate this fall, and his anti-war views will probably get most of the blame for that showing. But Paul has already won. And he did so by picking the absolute best thing—the most important, life and death issue—about which to be a purist.
Lucy Steigerwald is an associate editor of Reason magazine.