Rep. Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, is once again running for president.
No member of the House of Representatives has run for president and won since James A. Garfield in 1880 (and Garfield had been elected to the Senate just before his election as president). No one as old as Paul has been elected president. He would be 77 when he took the oath of office. Ronald Reagan was 69.
Most of all, no one as radical as Paul has been elected president during the modern era.
There are hopes that this time around, Paul will break through to mainstream America because his argument against foreign war, for a sound currency, and for large cuts in spending will catch fire. It will with some voters, but political ideas acceptable to the American public don’t change that fast.
I said this two weeks ago in a talk to my state’s conservative activists — an audience that included Paul supporters. I said I agreed with Paul on some important things, but that he could not win. One came up to me afterward and said, “You know, every time you say that, you hurt his movement. He got as far as he did last time because thousands of people thought he could win.”
And they were mistaken. But he changed some minds. He made arguments that nobody else would have made — and some of those arguments look better four years later.
In 2007, no Republican candidates were arguing against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan except Paul. Now the Politico website reports a rise of war weariness and even “isolationism” among the Republicans in Congress. They are far from a majority, but they are a faction. And there is another libertarian candidate in the race, former governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico, who also calls for getting out of the foreign wars immediately.
Four years ago, no Republican candidates other than Paul were talking about protecting the value of the dollar. I still haven’t heard them doing it — but gold is above $1,500 an ounce, and the US dollar is below the Canadian and Australian dollars. The topic ripens.
Four years ago, there was no quasi-libertarian Tea Party movement, and Ron Paul’s quasi-libertarian son Rand Paul was not in the US Senate.
The ground has changed.
Still, it has not changed enough to elect Ron Paul as president. There is no point collecting dandelion seeds, such as the CNN/Opinion Research poll last week, which showed Paul running stronger against President Obama than any other Republican candidate. I have heard that poll cited several times, never mentioning that the split was Obama, 52%, Paul, 45%. Anyway, it was a poll taken 15 months before the election, which means it was a poll of a public not paying attention. Paul, in particular, had not been seriously attacked.
A few days later, he was. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson of the Washington Post ripped into him for his answer to a reporter’s question. The question was whether Paul favored the legalization of heroin.
There is a purpose in questions like that. It is to see whether the reporter can catch the candidate saying something crazy — not crazy, maybe, to a social scientist or a philosopher, but crazy to a political operative, or Joe Sixpack.
The role of the radical candidate is to take the taboo stands, fight valiantly, lose, and change the political ground.In his answer, Paul compared freedom to use drugs to freedom of religion. Here is how Gerson paraphrased it: “If you tolerate Zoroastrianism, you must be able to buy heroin at the quickie mart.” This, Gerson sneered, is the essence of libertarianism.
But Paul had said more than that. Wrote Gerson: “Paul concluded his answer by doing a jeering rendition of an addict’s voice: ‘Oh yeah, I need the government to take care of me. I don’t want to use heroin, so I need these laws.’ Paul is not content to condemn a portion of his fellow citizens to self-destruction; he must mock them in their decline.”
Gerson concluded that any candidate who supports “the legalization of heroin while mocking addicts” is marginal and unserious. His column was a way of looking at the Republican list and scratching out the name of Ron Paul.
Libertarians can rail against Gerson as biased, which of course he is. He is an opinion columnist. Bias is part of his job description. But if your candidate is taken seriously, which Paul was not in 2008, this is the kind of attention he is going to get — and here it is attention from a conservative. If Paul became the Republican frontrunner, the pundits of the Left would go after him with machetes and crowbars.
They haven’t, because they delight in schism on the Right. But if he becomes the frontrunner, they will. And Paul has said plenty of things they can use to make a bogeyman out of him. Legalize heroin. Imagine what they could do with that.
Here is the reality. Certain political stands are safe, others are daring, and some are taboo. The role of the radical candidate is to take the taboo stands, fight valiantly, lose, and change the political ground. It is a valuable role to play: it is changing the field so that other good candidates, later on, can win.
What other candidate? Maybe Rand Paul in 2016 or 2020. Maybe Gary Johnson. One can imagine a Mitch Daniels-Gary Johnson ticket in 2012, with Johnson running in the top position later. Once a libertarian faction has been established in the Republican Party and is built into a substantial faction, room is made for other candidates, ones aiming more directly at winning, to have a go.
On the day that Paul announced, I had lunch with his 2008 campaign manager, Lew Moore. The timing was accidental; I had met Moore among the conservative activists two weeks before, and I hadn’t seen him in years. I asked him: when Paul ran in 2008, did the congressman seriously think he could win, or was it mostly to change the debate?
Without denying that Paul had had some chance of winning, Moore said the campaign was mostly about changing the debate. He said, “That is what his whole life has been about.”
And, at 75, Paul is not done. You have to admire the man. A lone congressman from Texas, never enjoying the support of his party’s establishment, has changed the political ground within the Republican Party.
And maybe he will change it some more.