The libertarian upstart isn’t just stirring controversy; he’s threatening to expose profound divisions within the GOP. Peter Beinart on how Paul will change the Republican Party in 2012.
We haven’t even said goodbye to 2011, but I want to be first in line with my person of the year prediction for 2012: Ron Paul. I don’t think Paul is going to win the presidency, or even win the Republican nomination. But he’s going to come close enough to change the GOP forever.
Washington Republicans and political pundits keep depicting Paul as some kind of ideological mutation, the conservative equivalent of a black swan. They’re wrong. Ask any historically-minded conservative who the most conservative president of the 20th Century was, and they’ll likely say Calvin Coolidge. No president tried as hard to make the federal government irrelevant. It’s said that Coolidge was so terrified of actually doing something as president that he tried his best not even to speak. But in 1925, Silent Cal did open his mouth long enough to spell out his foreign policy vision, and what he said could be emblazoned on a Ron Paul for President poster: “The people have had all the war, all the taxation, and all the military service they want.”
Small government conservatism, the kind to which today’s Republicans swear fealty, was born in the 1920s not only in reaction to the progressive movement’s efforts to use government to regulate business, but in reaction to World War I, which conservatives rightly saw as a crucial element of the government expansion they feared. To be a small government conservative in the 1920s and 1930s was, for the most part, to vehemently oppose military spending while insisting that the US never, ever get mired in another European war.
Even after World War II, Mr. Republican—Robert Taft—opposed the creation of NATO and called the Korean War unconstitutional. Dwight Eisenhower worked feverishly to scale back the Truman-era defense spending that he feared would bankrupt America and rob it of its civil liberties. Even conservative luminaries like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater who embraced the global anti-communist struggle made it clear that they were doing so with a heavy heart. Global military commitments, they explained, represented a tragic departure from small government conservatism, a departure justified only by the uniquely satanic nature of the Soviet threat.
The cold war lasted half a century, but isolationism never left the conservative DNA. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, some of America’s most prominent conservative intellectuals—people like Irving Kristol, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Pat Buchanan—argued that the GOP should become the party of Coolidge and Taft once again. The Republican Congress of the 1990s bitterly opposed Bill Clinton’s wars in the Balkans, and Buchanan, running on an isolationist platform, briefly led the GOP presidential field in 1996. Even the pre-9/11 Bush administration was so hostile to increased military spending that the Weekly Standard called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign.
Given this history, it’s entirely predictable that in the wake of two disillusioning wars, a diminishing al Qaeda threat and mounting debt, someone like Ron Paul would come along. In Washington, Republican elites are enmeshed in a defense-industrial complex with a commercial interest in America’s global military footprint. But listen to Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh and see how often you hear them demanding that America keep fighting in Afghanistan, or even attack Iran. According to a November CBS News poll, as many Republicans said the U.S. should decrease its troop presence in Afghanistan as said America should increase it or keep it the same. In the same survey, only 22 percent of Republicans called Iran’s nuclear program “a threat that requires military action now” compared to more than fifty percent who said it “can be contained with diplomacy.” Almost three-quarters of Republicans said the U.S. should not try to change dictatorships to democracies.
There are certainly Republicans out there who support the Bush-Cheney neo-imperialist foreign policy vision. But they’re split among the top tier presidential candidates. Paul has the isolationists all to himself. Moreover, his two top opponents—Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich—not only back a big-government foreign policy agenda, but have periodically backed a big-government domestic agenda as well. In other words, they personify the argument at the heart of Paul’s campaign: that if you love a powerful Pentagon, you’ll end up loving other parts of the government bureaucracy as well.
Since the Iowa caucuses generally reward organization and passion, I suspect Paul will win them easily. That would likely propel him to a strong showing in libertarian New Hampshire. Somehow, I think Romney and the Republican establishment will find a way to defeat him in the vicious and expensive struggle that follows. But the dominant storyline at the Republican convention will be figuring out how to appease Paul sufficiently to ensure that he doesn’t launch a third party bid. And in so doing, the GOP will legitimize its isolationist wing in a way it hasn’t since 9/11.
In truth, the modern Republican Party has always been a house divided, pulled between its desire to crusade against evil abroad and its fear that that crusade will empower the evil of big government at home. In 2012, I suspect, Ron Paul will expose that division in a way it has not been exposed in a long time. And Republicans will not soon paper it over again.