Politico's Ben Smith says Texas Gov. Rick Perry's showdown with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) at this week's presidential debate shows that the Paul campaign has mastered retail politics. He credits lessons learned during the successful Senate run of Paul's son Rand Paul last year:
[Paul campaign chairman Jesse] Benton took two key lessons from 2010: First, that the candidate should spend more time talking about practical issues than libertarian philosophy.
"We've learned that people are looking for a utilitarian answer – not everybody is going to have the same core beliefs about the role of government or what we should be doing for a society, but I think they look and see what works and what doesn't," he said. (Paul has clearly made an effort to focus on central Republican policy questions—he opened his speech in Ames with a long discussion of abortion—though the new campaign hasn't exactly silenced his more esoteric concerns, like the lost glory of silver dimes.)
The second lesson is that the longtime outsiders could use traditional Republican methods, tactics, and even consultants.
The 2010 campaign offered insiders, like Benton, a trial by fire. And the campaign also has a new layer of professional Republican operatives in the campaign's inner circle. Trygve Olsen, a veteran GOP operative who worked for Rand Paul after he secured the GOP nomination, is now a key Paul adviser, as is Virginia GOP hand Mike Rothfeld, Benton said. And adman Jon Downs, a mainstream GOP consultant, made the spot portraying Perry as "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader," prompting Perry to break a basic rule of politics and punch down.
1. Being attacked is clearly preferable to being ignored, which was Paul's predicament just a few weeks ago. But it's a little early to declare a sea change. In 2008 Paul was attacked by The New Republic and a wannabe toughguy Republican. This year he's attacked by The New Republic and a wannabe toughguy Republican.
2. There's a potential downside to peddling "utilitarian answers" in a political campaign when your entire message is that government can't provide utilitarian answers. There's a decent case to be made that ending both domestic and foreign intervention by the U.S. government would leave us with a more peaceful and prosperous country. But we should scale back the overweening state because it is the right thing to do, not because it will lead to a particular outcome.
3. Do we really want a Ron Paul who doesn't bore audiences with libertarian philosophy? That Ben Bernanke, glum chin mounted on glummer fist, must occasionally sit through lengthy Ron Paul disquisitions on libertarian philosophy is one of the few reasons we have to believe that earthly justice is possible.
4. All that having been said, Paul obviously won the debate just by daring to admit that the Reagan era was not as goddamn great as everybody pretends.