The Republican Party's Ron Paul Problem
Rep. Ron Paul announced yesterday that he will no longer be actively campaigning in forthcoming primaries. While this announcement–as perhaps his team should have figured, especially with its injudicious use of past tense about "fought hard"–was widely played in the media as essentially "Ron Paul drops out", he in fact directly said his quest to rack up as many delegates as he can for the Republican presidential nomination will continue. In fact, the announcement was more or less merely a public declaration of what had been the campaign's style for the past few weeks, featuring few of the smaller public events that make up a full-fledged campaign and more just giant campus rallies. The campaign was indeed likely down to only about a million on hand, and seems ill-inclined right now to do more big calls for cash.
His campaign advisors have had to try to play damage control–many, though by no means all, Paul fans around the Internet were dispirited, especially the ones still wanting to rack up big vote totals in states like Texas and California, just to show the establishment what's what.
But as a further announcement from Paul's campaign website stated, "Asked if this is a dropout, Paul's campaign manager Jesse Benton said 'Absolutely not! We are focusing our efforts squarely on winning delegates and party leadership positions at state conventions."
This announcement happened just a couple of days after state Republican Party conventions in Oklahoma and Arizona were racked by dissention, boos, accusations of illegal adjournment, at least one physical attack, and in Oklahoma a rump convention exiled in a parking lot. That all arose from the continued fervor of Paul's supporters, and not even Paul will be able to stop it. Such tumult is just the latest manifestations of the slow march of Paul people through the institutions of the Republican Party this year, a movement that is about more than whether or not Ron Paul is personally on the campaign trail.
Indeed, campaign advisor Doug Wead seemed to indicate that ending that sort of loud fighting–which makes the Paul movement seem unbearably wild and feisty for the Republican establishment–might have been part of the goal of the announcement:
all of this fighting makes Ron Paul nervous. Yes, he is taking on the establishment. Yes, he wants the monetary policy reformed so that the poor and the middle class and even the excluded rich can know the thrill and opportunity of free markets that aren't rigged for insider trading. But Dr. Paul is a happy warrior on these issues. He is a person who has always believed in a respectful dialogue and debate. As John Tate says, "That is what he wants his legacy to be."
Shouting people down is not Ron Paul's way. Winning a battle of ideals based on principles, in a respectful way, is how he approaches the contest and it is how he wants others to approach the contest, as well.
Other chatter around the Paul campaign I heard today indicated that an attempt to embue a more realistic sense of what Paul's actual electoral prospects are moving forward might have been part of the motive for the misunderstood announcement. Regardless, it's unlikely that a mere word from the top will slow down the desire to make as big a splash in the remaining state conventions, and eventually Tampa, as possible.
Of course, many in the Republican Party will continue to be merely aggravated by the Paulites loud persistence and refusal to get in line behind front runner Mitt Romney. But the rise of the movement around Paul, and the past history of such loud minorities within the GOP, indicate the Republican Party should figure out a way to keep the Paul people in the tent—not out in the parking lot.
A year ago, Paul was the presumed least-likely-to-succeed candidate in the GOP field. His radical libertarian bent and his fervent opposition to the Party's standard foreign policy positions made him seem anathema to the Party's primary base. Anyway, hadn't he tried this same trick in 2008, with no real electoral result? His running again was treated by both Party and the media as an easy-to-ignore distraction. Now, Paul is still the last man standing in opposition to Romney—and far from fading, his fortunes both within the Party and within the culture are rising.
Politically, Paul has been pulling off wins thought impossible through the winter and spring, when every other candidate had their moment as the presumptive leader of the opposition to Romney. Paul now controls the delegation from Maine, and seems quite likely on target to do the same in Minnesota, Iowa, and Louisiana, and has made substantial in-roads in filling delegate slots in Massachusetts and Nevada (though even delegates who are Paul supporters are bound to vote for Romney). Paul supporters hold top leadership positions in the state Party now in both Iowa and Alaska. No matter how many delegates he goes into Tampa with, Paul and his fans can no longer be written off as politically unimportant.
But political importance, as measured in votes or delegates right now, isn't the only measure of Paul's effect. Some have mocked Paul's presidential runs as ideologically motivated acting out, not serious attempts to win office. That accusation seems to ring true to some because Paul can gain whether he wins or loses.
Though a Republican congressman and a Ronald Reagan delegate to the 1976 Republican convention, Paul's intellectual background is in the libertarian movement. He was the Libertarian Party's 1988 presidential candidate in-between stints as a Republican congressman, and his attitudes about government purpose and monetary policy were shaped by libertarian hero economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard.
The libertarian movement has been driven not necessarily to win political office, but to educate the mass public on the virtues of libertarian ideas. Politicians, most libertarian think, are going to be lagging indicators of public opinion. The real game is shaping that public opinion.
Thus, Paul's cultural and intellectual victories—a series of best-selling books, launching organizations such as Campaign for Liberty, becoming a positive political signifier on everything from Saturday Night Live to Daily Show with Jon Stewart—can be as meaningful as racking up votes.
And Paul's status as a cultural hero, especially to the young, is growing. In the past couple of months, he's pulled bigger crowds than ever at college campuses, including over 7,000 at UCLA, over 6,000 at University of Texas-Austin, and over 4,000 in the rain in Philadelphia. His "Youth for Ron Paul" group now has over 110,000 members in 627 chapters in all 50 states. He is creating a legacy of enthusiastic, giving activists, many skewing young.
The "giving" part should be especially important to the Party. Paul raised $35 million in the 2008 run, and got nowhere electorally. Rather than feeling burned out, his fans have given even more this go-round. Paul outraised Newt Gingrich by $14 million, and Rick Santorum by $16 million.
His vote totals in 2012 also show the Paul phenomenon growing, not shrinking. He doubled his total number of votes, and his share of the total Republican primary vote more than doubled so far, increasing by 6 percentage points, from 4 to 10. While his armies are undoubtedly at an election cycle or two from succeeding in large number, dozens of would-be federal office holders and hundreds of state and local ones are running now explicitly inspired by Ron Paul. The first fruition of that strategy was in 2010, with the election of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
The Republican Party has seen this phenomenon before—young, passionate, uncompromising activists with a powerful anti-government bent coming into a Party whose establishment is confused or aggravated by them, led by a very ideological politician who inspires great personal loyalty and affection. It was the Barry Goldwater movement, in 1960. Four years later their man got the nomination, and 20 years later an exemplar of that movement won the presidency of the United States.
How much hold on the future could this libertarian minority within the Republican Party have, energized by a failed presidential campaign and deliberately following a strategy of occupying positions within the Party structure from the bottom up? To answer that, consider Pat Robertson in 1988 and the effect the religious right has had on the Republican Party ever since.
The libertarians could well have success in shaping the Party's actual policies in a way the religious right did not. The libertarians concerns actually represent serious solutions to actual crises the country faces, in fiscal, monetary, and foreign policy, not merely a shrinking reaction against cultural and values change. The cultural values of the religious right are losing their grip on the majority of the American people, while Paul's libertarian leanings are growing. In a CNN poll from last June, 63 percent say they think government was doing too much, and 50 percent said government should not favor any particular set of values. That was the highest numbers ever supporting those libertarian-leaning attitudes.
The most important reason Paul's fans aren't going away is that they believe that his very serious attempts to rein in government spending and function—his budget proposals are far stronger on instant spending cuts and debt reduction than Romney's or any other past candidate's—are what the Party needs to focus on, in the wake of the still-dissatisfied Tea Party movement, and what the country needs to focus on, in the wake of our overwhelming and growing debt.
In 2008, Paul and his people ran an alternate convention called the Rally for the Republic that drew well over 10,000 dedicated fans. Paul has not made any promises to endorse Romney, and despite the studied cordiality with which the candidates have treated the other, he's unlikely to. That won't make the Republican Party powers any happier than were those people fussing in the Oklahoma and Arizona GOP conventions. But the activists Paul has energized won't be going away until the issues of debt and government overreach that inspire them have been dealt with, and from their perspective that won't be happening no matter who wins in November.
Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and author of Ron Paul's Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside Books).