In Defense of Ron Paul*

Ron Paul has arrived, thanks in large part to the unrivaled intensity of his supporters. In the weeks since his dedicated -- some say obsessive -- online army organized a "money bomb" that delivered over $4 million in a single day to Paul's war chest, his quixotic campaign has gotten a boatload of media attention. It is officially the quirky, nontraditional candidate story of the 2008 race. If the campaign pulls off the $10 million "tea party" planned for Dec. 16, the spotlight on Paul will get hotter still.

With that attention comes a new level of scrutiny, as one would expect. But most of the media's analyses don't put the Paul "sensation" into a larger context. Often missing is the degree to which Paul's popularity is related to Washington's structural inability to handle the issues most important to American voters -- a flaw that extends to the corporate media as well. Lacking that context, the criticism flung at the Paul campaign is superficial and distracting.

Progressive bloggers have started to take notice of the insurgent campaign as well, and there's been a spasm of critical posts slicing and dicing the Ron Paul experience. Unfortunately, too many of them have focused not on Paul's record, his beliefs or why he's become such a phenomenon in the race for the White House, but on his supporters, who include a nasty little assortment of feverish nativists, half-baked ultranationalists, white supremacists, New World Order conspiracy theorists, etc., in addition to the (no doubt far more numerous) ordinary, pissed-off patriotic Americans who are attracted to his candidacy.

So we've recently discovered that Ron Paul is backed by: people minting their own "cuckoo bananas money" and members of an identity theft ring. We've learned that "Paul has the support of David Duke" and Stormfront has a YouTube audio commercial up supporting Paul. Also supporting him are the "Patriot" movement "nutjobs with guns and anti-government leanings" who were made famous by homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh. He's loved by the owner of a Nevada whorehouse and has even gotten the nod from Hutton Gibson, Mel's wingnut father and the man who taught him everything he ever needed to know about those damn Jews.

To which I can only say: OK, folks, we get it. If we accept guilt by association as a reasonable political argument, then Paul is as guilty as they come.

But not directly so. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out:

The Paul campaign has a hands-off approach when it comes to supporters' activities and political backgrounds. While grateful for the money, aides insist they aren't responsible for what supporters do online. "We don't know who a lot of these people are," says Jesse Benton, a campaign spokesman … "Sometimes Ron Paul supporters get a little overpassionate and maybe a little more shrill than what some might like," Mr. Benton says.
Of course, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and many of the bloggers making hay out of Paul's less savory supporters are happy to slam what the Clintons famously called the "politics of personal destruction" -- the tactic, popular on the right, of turning various public figures who support Democrats into pernicious liberal strawmen whose excesses are supposedly evidence of how out of touch progressives are.

But more than that, the typical analysis misses the fundamental dynamic driving Paul's popularity. His campaign occupies that political space where right- and left-populism intersect, and that space exists only because there are significant areas of national policy where neither of the two parties, nor any of the "mainstream" candidates, have shown any willingness to represent their constituents.

Polls show that a majority of Americans want a withdrawal from Iraq, but none of the leading candidates are calling for a complete pull-out. Three-quarters of Americans oppose a permanent military presence there, yet the same number believe that the United States would not withdraw even if asked by the Iraqi "government." A majority oppose the White House's claim that it can torture whom it likes, but the Democrat-controlled Congress confirmed an attorney general who wouldn't say that water-boarding -- prosecuted as torture by military courts since the Spanish-American War -- is illegal. More Americans think K Street's "trade" deals hurt Americans than believe they help, but among the first acts of the new Congress was to strike a new "grand bargain" with Bush on trade. Voters want to see movement on healthcare, immigration, retirement security and job outsourcing, and on all of these issues the Big Money candidates in both parties, with the possible exception of John Edwards, either stand moot or offer fluffy platitudes about change while ferociously defending the status quo.

Ron Paul is a reactionary, yes, but he speaks to these and other ignored issues -- speaks to voters' growing disenfranchisement and lack of trust in government, to their fears and insecurities about the future -- in a way that the rest of the field won't, and any analysis of the Ron Paul phenomenon that doesn't acknowledge that reality misses the heart of the story.

Stick to the record

Ron Paul is running for president, and I'm not suggesting that he's somehow above criticism -- an idea that Paul's supporters often seem to embrace. His is a brand of politics well outside the American mainstream, and that's revealed, clearly, in his legislative record. That record, and Ron Paul's governing philosophy, provide more than enough grist for the critical mill -- there's no need to indulge in cheap shots.

Paul's libertarian impulses don't appear to extend to the issue of reproductive choice -- he's introduced four bills, including a Constitutional amendment, defining human life as beginning with conception. That doesn't make him a run-of-the-mill, anti-choice conservative; the L.A. Times described the measure as part of an aggressive tactic "which could effectively outlaw all abortions and some birth control methods."
Some activists say they are fed up with incremental steps -- and are not interested in waiting years, or possibly decades, for a more conservative court to revisit Roe. Instead, they are out to change the legal status of embryos in hopes of forcing the Supreme Court to ban abortion.
"The concept that we're going to elect judges who will change everything has failed," said Brian Rohrbough, a former president of Colorado Right to Life. "The logical thing is to start with personhood. … It's the only legitimate tactic that does not involve a compromise."
The Times story noted that "every year since [Roe v. Wade], members of Congress have introduced a bill to [define human life as beginning with conception], but they never got anywhere." On several occasions, that member of Congress was none other than Dr. Ron Paul.

Paul's proposed a number of court-stripping measures, shutting the courthouse door to discrimination suits based on sexual discrimination; he's tried to prohibit the government from mandating a minimum wage; he's tried to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees that workers on federal projects be paid a prevailing wage, and the Copeland Act, which bars kick-backs on federal projects; he has proposed freezing Social Security benefit levels and making the program fully optional, which would effectively destroy it; he has opposed measures that promote more voter participation; he would repeal key parts of American anti-trust law, gutting it; he's tried to deauthorize most federal agencies' regulatory powers; he's tried to eliminate all affirmative action programs; he's proposed altering the 14th Amendment to prohibit the children of immigrants from gaining citizenship; he's proposed eliminating or gutting a variety of environmental legislation; he's tried to kill the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and submitted legislation that would pull the United States out of the United Nations 12 different times; he has tried to eradicate the Department of Education, offered legislation to end federal involvement in educating kids; and he has proposed, at various times, the abolition of most taxes on wealth as well as income and the establishment of a flat tax. All of this is legislation that he not only supported, but proposed or co-sponsored.

There are also legitimate concerns about some ugly racist stereotypes that were included in a newsletter that Paul sent out in the early 1990s. Paul claims he didn't write the words, but they were included in a publication called The Ron Paul Political Report and his supporters' insistence that (a) he knew nothing about the content of The Ron Paul Political Report and (b) he shouldn't be held responsible for the contents of The Ron Paul Political Report ring hollow. (As a New Yorker myself, nobody can convince me that Rudolph Giuliani isn't the really hardcore racist in this race -- he's just a hell of a lot smoother about covering up the fact than are people like Paul.)

Paul says that he'd slash the size of government by 40 percent, a dramatic restructuring by any account. As I've written before, people may respond positively to the idea of limited government in the abstract, but when it comes to specifics most Americans love big government and most (though certainly not all) of what it does. They want a government that will educate their children and put out forest fires and make sure that big chemical companies aren't poisoning their water. They expect cheap student loans and meat inspections and smooth highways, and even the lowest of "low information" voters know they're not going to get that stuff from the private sector.

And it's here where Paul deserves some respect, even from his detractors. He does, after all, have the courage of his convictions. In an era when balanced pandering has become the highest of campaign arts, Paul, unlike the rest of his Republican brethren, is perfectly straightforward about his desire to roll back much of the 20th century. As blogger David Caspian put it: "The reality is: Ron Paul, though crazy, is consistently crazy. He is not trying to hide his batshit ideas, in fact he's running on them. And though they might not understand all of it, people like it."

Some of Paul's supporters insist that his stark, slash-and-burn anti-governmentalism and isolationism don't matter. As president, he'd still have a Congress to deal with, and the burden of actually having to govern would likely inject a note of pragmatism into Paul's ideology. It's a unique argument: Ignore my candidate's more extreme ideas because they'll never get past Congress. The problem is that ideology matters -- it helps guide every decision one makes in office -- and the president of the United States of America is, as most people grasp, a pretty powerful person.

Of course, that's an academic discussion. Regardless of his supporters' passion or his ability to raise funds online, Paul has as much chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2008 as the average gay Mexican pornographer. He is, after all, running on an anti-war, anti-"free trade" and pro-civil liberties platform in a Republican primary. Add to that a media that's unable to seriously cover political beliefs that fall outside the narrow discourse of mainstream Republican versus Democratic food fights, and it's clear that Paul will not be leading his party in 2008.

And while he's no threat, he's helped disrupt the GOP's nomination process, adding more volatility to the polls and more issues to the debate. Plus he's made things a hell of a lot more interesting on the GOP side.

While I would never suggest reaching out to the white power movement, many of Paul's supporters are simply disenfranchised nonvoters who have been animated, many for the first time in years, by his campaign, and that's not a bad thing in a nominal democracy where complacency rules.
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