I can't forgive myself for voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California during the 2003 recall. I selected a "winnable" loser rather than now-congressman Tom McClintock, a principled conservative who knew what policies to pursue to right California's sinking fiscal ship. If everyone who voted for Schwarzenegger under the belief that McClintock couldn't win had voted for McClintock, perhaps he would have won.
The Schwarzenegger v. McClintock race springs to mind as Ron Paul, the quirky Texas congressman with unwavering libertarian principles, pursues the GOP nomination for the presidency. Paul is not a dynamic personality, but he has a firm grasp of the issues. Currently, he is near the top of polls for the Iowa caucuses, and his national support has remained strong.
We know that none of the other Republicans will seriously slash the size of government, even if they have Republican majorities in Congress. None of them will bring the troops home, regardless of how costly those wars have become or how contrary they are to the traditional Republican belief of non-intervention in foreign affairs. Despite encouraging rhetoric from some candidates (i.e., Rick Perry's description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme), the "serious" candidates will not try to swap U.S. entitlements with private alternatives.
None of them will address the Federal Reserve, which, according to Paul, makes it easy for the feds to print the money needed to finance their free-spending ways. At best, a winning mainstream Republican will tinker around the edges of reform, perhaps limiting government just enough to let the economy heat up again.
Even if Paul pulls off the upset of the century, he may not have the skills or congressional support to succeed. He can be obtuse, such as the time when he was asked about his favorite Ronald Reagan legacy and gave a boring answer about the money supply. But despite his many flaws, he at least he understands that the nation's problems center on its gargantuan government.
Too bad everyone "knows" he can't win.
Comedian Jon Stewart once featured a devastating segment on the media coverage of the primary. Paul had high poll numbers but the talking heads wouldn't mention his name. They talked about the hapless Jon Huntsman, who was barely registering on the polls, but didn't mention Paul. After one blogger took him to task for writing about the presidential candidates without mentioning Paul, Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online, responded: "The reason I didn't mention him is precisely the reason [he] suspects: I don't take Ron Paul serious as a presidential contender because (in my opinion) he isn't one. He is the right's version of Ralph Nader."
Conservative writer Warner Todd Huston wrote recently that Paul is not a serious candidate because he has not built a serious statewide organization, which might be a legitimate argument except that Huston hurled unfounded accusations at Paul, charging his minions with anti-Semitism and surrender in the face of "Islamofascism." His diatribe against the mild-mannered physician/candidate touches on why most conservatives won't take him seriously—Paul's foreign-policy views.
To the hawks who dominate the modern GOP (and the Democratic Party, too, lest you wonder why the president's foreign policy differs little from his predecessor's), Paul's focus on reducing military commitments and concentrating on defense rather than on nation-building is the equivalent of appeasement in the face of Nazism, which is the analogy Huston used. You'd think it a waste of time to hammer a candidate with no chance of winning. But those conservatives committed to military expansion abroad and who have little concern about the War on Terrorism's effect on civil liberties at home don't want to take chances. The lefties dislike him too, as Bob Schieffer's rude interview on Face the Nation last weekend showed.
Nevertheless, Paul might just win Iowa. I was active in the caucuses there years ago. It's a socially conservative state. But the libertarian Paul is making inroads. In these dire economic times, more voters are noticing that government growth, debt spending, and the economy are paramount.
Paul might not have a good ground game going, but Herman Cain doesn't have much of a ground game, either. That didn't stop Cain from getting weeks of serious national media coverage. His campaign was derailed by sexual harassment allegations, and by his painfully embarrassing answer to an editorial board's puffball question about President Obama's Libyan policy. Cain knew nothing about the topic as he aimlessly searched his empty mental Rolodex for answers. Cain's collapse came after Perry's infamous "oops" moment during a GOP debate when he was asked which three federal departments he would eliminate, but he couldn't think of the third one.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the flavor of the month, as GOP primary voters search for anyone but Mitt Romney, whose slick personality and fairly liberal policies turn off grassroots activists. But Gingrich has malleable principles himself and he is dogged by personal scandals. It's hard to be impressed by any of the other Republican candidates who range from the hopelessly establishmentarian (Rick Santorum and Huntsman) to the fringy (Michele Bachman, who has been dubbed the winner of the "Who's Crazier Than Sarah Palin" contest by comedian Conan O'Brien, because of some of her rhetoric).
When you look at the Republican lineup or at the out-of-his-depth former community activist who went from state senator to Oval Office in four years, it's hard to make the case that Paul is somehow not serious. In reality, Paul "can't win" because the political establishment knows how serious he is about his limited-government views.
Even in the most optimistic scenario, Paul is a long-shot. But the country's problems are so deep that perhaps it's time to take a chance on someone with the right answers, regardless of the odds. Unless, of course, you're still celebrating the way that Gov. Schwarzenegger saved California from disaster.