Jacob Heilbrunn

The Rise of Ron Paul: the Latest Republican Debate

So much for the famous 11th commandment of the GOP—thou shalt not criticize another Republican. The candidates in Las Vegas last night may aspire to become Ronald Reagan, but they flouted his injunction. The sniping that characterized previous debates turned into a full-scale barrage, which was both entertaining and instructive.

In foreign policy, it was Ron Paul who spurned what has become a stifling orthodoxy among Republicans. Nothing seems to faze Paul; in fact he may revel in being the fellow who gets to blow a loud raspberry at his fellow candidates. He announced that America was an empire with several hundred bases around the world. Why is America helping to subsidize the German social-welfare state, he asked? Why is Israel so dependent on America? Michele Bachmann would have none of it. Israel, she said, is "our greatest ally." No question: Israel is one of America's closest allies. But its greatest? What happened to the special relationship with England? Or ties to Germany, one of the leading industrial powers in the world?

The only issue on which Paul and the rest of the field seemed to agree was foreign aid, which—let's face it—is the cheapest of cheap shots. The State Department and USAID disburse about $37 billion a year abroad, a paltry sum. Paul's more trenchant point was whether the aid, which has gone to corrupt kleptocracies such as Egypt, is actually effective—or whether it boomerangs, creating more animosity towards America among local populations who resent our support for homegrown dictators.

The real fisticuffs came between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. It's a good thing that Romney is so tall because otherwise you have the feeling that Perry would simply like to slug him. Romney's contempt for Perry—and much of the rest of the field—appears to be quite genuine. Perry was almost visibly and audibly gasping for breath as he tried to come up with passable answers. At one point he literally looked to the heavens, paused, then referred to the 10th amendment. Perry was his usual bellicose self, urging that America "defund" the United Nations, as though that would somehow solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He came across as a bargain-basement version of George W. Bush. And he was, at best, fibbing when he denied to Rick Santorum that he had signed a letter urging Congress to pass TARP in 2008—in Perry's construction the letter really just was an innocuous exhortation to Congress to pass economic reform. Uh-huh.

Speaking of floundering, pizza magnate Herman Cain was all over the place on the issue of whether or not America negotiates with terrorists. Rick Santorum, who came across as seasoned and alert, said he would never do so. Cain opened up a can of worms for himself by announcing what seems like a contradictory policy. As far as it was possible to make out, he seemed to be indicating that: 1) he would announce a policy of never negotiating with terrorists; and 2) he would negotiate with terrorists if necessary to rescue an American soldier.

Of course, it was a trick question, but Cain's inexperience was painfully apparent. How could he have let himself be trapped into stating that he would release Guantanamo prisoners to free an American hostage? Of course America's greatest ally has just concluded negotiations with some of the worst elements in the Middle East to extricate Sgt. Gilad Shalit from captivity, releasing more than a thousand Palestinians to Hamas. What kind of a precedent does that set? Would America negotiate with al-Qaeda? The truth is that the sainted Ronald Reagan did go down that path with Iran, even if he could never quite admit it to himself. He was negotiating with terrorists. Later on, George W. Bush cut a deal with Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. So much for all the huffing and puffing about never treating with terrorists.

Once again, Romney was in command. But the most visionary of the candidates acutally appears to be Paul. He sounded like a prophet as he warned that America was living beyond its means, not only at home but also abroad. The debt bubble, he said, would make everything else look like a sideshow. What if Europe goes bellyup? Let's hope he's wrong. Even if he's right, a Pauline conversion may not take place among voters. But it would certainly boost his standing in the GOP.

The true struggle that may loom in the GOP may not be between Perry and Romney, but between Romney, the establishment candidate, and Paul. Until now, Paul has been shunned and scorned. But the coming year may show whether or not his political program ends up having real legs. Of course Paul himself will never amount to more than a gadfly. But it will be intriguing to see if an older Republican tradition of restraint makes a comeback or whether it is as dead as the dodo bird. With Jon Huntsman, the most measured of the candidates, apparently fading into oblivion, there really is no Republican candidate for the presidency other than Paul arguing for change in American foreign policy.