Jacob Heilbrunn

Will Ron Paul Win Iowa?

Ron Paul could be the sleeper candidate who wins Iowa. For all the attention lavished upon Newt Gingrich, it may be Paul who has the most organizational resources in Iowa to challenge Mitt Romney for the lead. He could win an upset victory.

For anyone looking for a different, insurgent candidate, Paul is it. The GOP has already run through a number of would-be challengers—Herman Cain, Rick Perry. But Paul is the true rebel with a cause. That cause, more or less, has been a libertarian approach to the federal government. Paul, the godfather of the Tea Party, is no Johnny-come-lately to the bash-big-government party. He's been railing against it for decades, a lonely voice in the wilderness. But now the old growth has been hacked down and he's standing in a clearing, surrounded by rapt followers. To them, Paul is the messiah, a prophet ready to attack the size and scope of government.

For some conservatives, this makes Paul a distinctly uncomfortable figure. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, for example, Kimberley A. Strassel explains "Why Ron Paul Can't Win." What she also means is why he shouldn't win. She makes some approving noises about his domestic stands. But there her approval ends. Foreign policy is the rub. Paul, she suggests, is a blame-America-first type. He lacks the necessary vigor to defend America from assault.

According to Strassel,

Mr. Paul's new strategy has been to assail opponents like Mr. Gingrich, hoping to remind voters of his rivals' flaws. But the bar to Mr. Paul's campaign is not his opponents, or their money, or (a frequent Paul complaint) media bias. Because he can't, or won't, accommodate his own foreign policy views to those of the nation, there is only one bar to a Ron Paul victory: Mr. Paul.

Strassel's comments point to an unacknowledged conundrum for many conservatives. If they are opposed to big government—and many say they are—then why do they exempt the biggest part of the government from scrutiny? Why, moreover, do they not simply exempt it from scrutiny but actively proclaim that we need to give it even more money? Yet the Pentagon has never been more awash in funds—the Congress just approved a $662 billion budget for it. Does it really need all that money? Or have we moved to a permanent war economy?

In the latest Vanity Fair, Todd S. Purum outlines the shocking dimensions that American spending on the military has assumed. His article is titled "One Nation Under Arms." He cites George F. Kennan, who observed that America's role in the world today would come as a rude surprise to the founding fathers. They never envisioned a garrison state. Quite the opposite. But as Purdum notes, military spending has become a vital part of the economy. In addition, no president, at least in modern times, has willingly surrendered the power that he can exercise virtually untrammelled in the national-security sphere. As a result, spending has soared:

In historic terms, this addiction to military spending—one that dominates the existence of places as diverse as Huntsville and Cedar Rapids, Norfolk and San Diego, El Paso and Colorado Springs—would have been seen as un-American. For generations, the nation’s pattern after each armed conflict was demobilization. In 1918, as World War I ended, France was spending $235 per capita on its military, Great Britain $188, and the U.S. just $68. As late as 1940, on the eve of its entry into World War II, the United States spent just 1.7 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The level today is three times that proportion, on a vastly greater base. American military spending accounts for 43 percent of all defense spending worldwide, 6 times the share of China, 12 times that of Russia. The U.S. Navy is larger than the next 13 navies combined. Overall, defense spending increased about 70 percent under George W. Bush, and it now stands at more than half a trillion dollars annually, roughly $100 billion a year (in inflation-adjusted dollars) above the levels at the height of the Cold War.

It is this phenomenon that has Ron Paul so exercised. His indignation centers not simply on spending but what it implies for America as a nation. As he sees it, America's moral values have become corroded. Americans are surrendering their freedoms in the name of protecting them. It's improbable that Paul will capture the Republican nomination. But it's worth heeding his cautionary voice. And it may be impossible to avoid him. He may well wreak havoc in the Republican primary as well as the presidential race. If Paul decides to run as an independent in the general election, it would be a daunting prospect for any Republican candidate for the presidency, whether it's Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney. Watch out for Paul.