Ron Paul may win the Iowa caucuses, or at least make a strong showing, and a lot of people aren't happy about it. Paul may decry warfare, but he himself has been the target of numerous fusillades in recent days. The latest comes from Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, who employs his column to attack Andrew Sullivan for extolling Paul.
The gravamen of the charge against Paul is that he is an isolationist, a revenant of the bad old days when the GOP opposed intervention in Europe during the 1930s and was a repository of anti-Semitism. The odious newsletters that Paul affixed his name to that carried a variety of racist articles—Paul denies that he even saw the pieces—have only heightened the suspicion that Paul is a a dangerous force inside the GOP—a Trojan Horse for the extremist Right. According to Cohen, Sullivan, for one, fails to understand that
if someone like Paul had been president in the 1940s, his homeland might have succumbed to Nazi Germany while America, maddeningly isolationist, sat out the war. No doubt, curriculum changes would have been made at Oxford.
The truth is that not only would curriculum changes have been made, but a young Andrew might have been wearing lederhosen and munching on Bratwurst rather than fish and chips. Cohen is right: Paul is an isolationist, who regards any foreign war with horror and wants to return to an earlier conception of America as a republic.
Still. Is Paul more than a troublemaker inside the GOP? Does he himself need to be isolated? And does America face a new World War II situation?
Contrary to neocon dogma, 2012 is not 1939. There is no Hitler seeking world hegemony. America vastly outspends its competitors when it comes to the military. And it's coming off a decade of military intervention that has not always worked out so well. This is the context for the appeal of Paul in Iowa and elsewhere.
Now it's fine and dandy to focus on Paul's daffy view of complete isolation from the world, but he actually does have some cogent criticisms to voice of the GOP. In many ways, it must be said, he's more sensible than the other candidates, at least by default. To put it another way, the GOP has lurched so deeply into the neocon fold that it makes Paul look reasonable. He doesn't think that America has a patent on wisdom in foreign policy, while the other candidates vie to outdo each other on which country they would most quickly bomb to smithereens upon taking the presidential oath.
Perhaps the most novel thing about the Paul candidacy is that he is attracting some support on the Left. Here is what Sullivan himself has to say:
there is something awry when a candidate is assessed not on his arguments and proposals but on the shadiness and ugliness of some of his fringe supporters. And his arguments are serious, even vital, ones for this moment: that the construct of American global hegemony is too costly, too dated and too counter-productive to work in this country's interests abroad any longer; that the welfare state cannot be sustained at its present level with our looming demographics and massive debt; that problems are often best solved closest to the ground where they occur; that dividing Americans into identity groups and pandering to each is inimical to a free individualist society, and so on. These are fresher ideas on the right than the exhausted re-microwaved Reaganism of the others.
Which is why, whatever happens to his candidacy, Paul has already achieved something important: the broadening of debate, the scrambling of right and left, and the appearance on our toxic public stage of a man who seems to say what he thinks without much calculation or guile.
But this is what the dominant foreign-policy wing of the Republican party, deeply influenced by neoconservatism, does not want to address. Instead it is focusing on a new war with Iran--as though any attempt to stop Iran short of bombing constitutes a new Munich. Sen. Rick Santorum, for example, has flatly said he would bomb Iran. Paul, by contrast, says that's nuts. The result is that the Republican debates have, at least when it comes to foreign affairs, actually seen the candidates debating with each other, or, to put it more precisely, with Ron Paul. It's Paul who blows the raspberry at everyone else in the debates. Say what you will about the man, the Iowa caucus would have been a lot more boring if he weren't around to enliven it.
More fundamentally, Paul, in all his crankiness, represents a budding debate inside the GOP that the party pooh-bahs will not be able to defer much longer. The truth is that the GOP has been peddling a schizophrenic approach to the federal government. On the one hand we are told that the growing size of the federal government is a very bad thing; on the other hand we are told that the very part of the government that is growing most quickly—the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, Homeland Security—cannot be touched at all when it comes to budget cutting. Indeed, they are to be pampered and showered with even greater funding.
The Pauls are against this. Yes, the Pauls, not just Ron Paul. All along it has seemed clear to me that the real purpose of Ron Paul's 2012 campaign is to establish the groundwork for his son Rand Paul's run in 2016. As the Washington Post reports,
Where his father can be professorial, going from one run-on sentence to the next, name-dropping Austrian economists along the way, the senator from Kentucky is succinct, more down-home (the Southern drawl helps) and less cranky.
And people have noticed.
If the GOP thinks Ron Paul is bad, wait until Rand Paul makes his move. The baggage that is draped over his father's shoulders—the crankiness, the racist newsletters—will be absent. If anyone can mainstream his father's isolationist views, it's his son.
Image: Gage Skidmore