The action at the Republican convention in Tampa may not be Mitt Romney's coronation. Even as Hurricane Isaac barrels towards Florida, Ron Paul has been stealing Romney's thunder. The rise of what Ron Paul is calling the "liberty movement" is grabbing headlines, a phenomenon that should not be all that surprising since Paul is the most shrewd member of the colorful cast of characters who originally vied for the Republican nomination. Now he is preparing, or trying to prepare, the stage for a full-fledged Tea Party takeover of the GOP.
Romney has tried to liberate himself from the liberty movement by excluding Paul and his forces, as far as possible, from a prominent role at the convention. He's been largely successful. But Paul clearly isn't hesitant about going rogue, which is what he did on Sunday before his worshipful admirers. He thrives on taunting the GOP establishment. Unlike Romney, who has desperately been trying to appeal to the right, Paul actually believes in what he is promulgating. "The worst thing we could do is to be silent," he told a jubilant crowd at the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida. He isn't. Paul has been avidly spreading his doctrine--retreat from self-imposed obligations abroad and reining in the Federal Reserve. As Paul sees it, he won't have to come to the GOP. It will end up coming to him--"we'll be the tent."
Paul is the anti-neocon. While Utah Governor Jon Huntman expressed his reservations about the direction of the GOP more diplomatically, Paul has been scorching. Pull out of Afghanistan. Slash the defense department. Paul, unlike Romney and Paul Ryan, is utterly consistent about budget cutting. Where else but at a Paul rally, as Fox News observes, would an "Austrian school" economist get a rousing ovation? And where else would Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke be referred to as a "dictator, a traitor"? Paul himself declared that the "revolution" was unstoppable.
In the latest National Interest, Robert Merry and Zbigniew Brzezinski ponder the prospect of more turmoil being the prerequisite to create a consensus about tackling the national debt and job creation. But what Paul is proposing, I think, is much more radical, a revolution from below, not above. To many the excitable crowd at the six-hour rally will have overtones of an older and violent revolution that followed the American one--the French revolution of 1789. Paul is no Burkean. He embraces upheaval. But conservatism's true mission is supposed to be to conserve, which was the aim of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the older generation at the National Review (apart from William Rusher, one of the authors of the GOP's populist southern strategy, whose career is ably recounted in the new biography If Not Us, Who? by David B. Frisk). That is not Paul's aim. He doesn't simply want to upset the old order. He wants to topple it from the bottom up.
He may reserve more ire for heretics on the right than on the left. One thing seems clear: the 77-year-old Paul is not going away quietly. He is a tough old bird. And he has a successor in the form of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a more polished version of his father. Far from resembling a spent force, the Tea Party does not appear to be going away. Romney's mission will be to co-opt the excitement without drifting toward the lunatic fringe. His acceptance speech will go some ways towards demonstrating whether he's up to the job. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is preparing for 2016 even as Romney readies himself for a final, full-fledged assault on President Obama. If Romney fails, the GOP will most likely move further to the right, but before the party does it might well plunge into a civil war, divided between neocons, Tea Party followers, and a few remaining moderates.