As some readers of this column may know, the first "real" job I ever had was working for Congressman Ron Paul back in 1976. I went to visit him a few months ago and was pleased to see that he had not changed much at all since the days when I was a legislative assistant on his congressional staff.
At that time, I did not know that Ron planned a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. When I later learned of it, I thought he was being hopelessly Quixotic -- tilting at windmills. I thought Ron's views about limited constitutional government and nonintervention in the affairs of other nations were hopelessly out of step with the vast bulk of Republican primary voters. On the war, they remain solidly in the George W. Bush camp -- willing to defend the war in Iraq to the bitter end and highly intolerant of anyone who raises doubts about its wisdom or continuation. Rudy Giuliani exemplified this attitude in the debate two weeks ago when he demanded that Ron apologize for his antiwar position.
However, significant cracks have developed in the wall of conservative support that Bush enjoyed at the beginning of the war. Today, much is known about the lack of verifiable evidence of Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction, and about how the White House bullied those urging caution into reluctant support and thoroughly screwed-up the Iraq occupation. Even Sen. John McCain, still a strenuous war supporter, has become outspoken on Bush's poor management of it. Consequently, more than a few conservatives have gone over to the antiwar side. Unfortunately for Ron, they are mostly former Republicans today, unlikely to vote in a Republican primary.
Among conservatives, another factor is also at work: the growing realization that Bush has never really understood or shared a Goldwater/Reagan vision of the nature of conservative governance. And even those who still cling desperately to the view that Bush is better than the Democratic alternative mostly concede that his performance in office on a wide range of issues has left much to be desired. Following are just a few examples of Bush's actions that have worn them down:
-- The explosion of spending on Bush's watch, his strong support for numerous "big government" initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the vast expansion of the Medicare program for prescription drugs, and his unwillingness to use the veto to control an orgy of pork barrel spending on his watch. Bush's recent successful veto of the defense supplemental, which yielded a bill close to what he originally asked for, confirms the view that he could have kept wasteful spending under control all along if he had simply made the effort.
-- Bush's extraordinarily poor choices for high-level government positions. The choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court was perhaps his worst decision -- rectified only because conservatives finally protested one of his decisions en masse and forced him to choose the vastly more qualified Samuel Alito instead. But since then we have witnessed the gross incompetence of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the continuing scandal over the unnecessary -- and still unexplained -- firings of several U.S. attorneys; the comically inept actions of former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown during the Katrina disaster; and the forced resignation of Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank, a position for which he was totally unqualified in the first place and which was given to him purely as a reward for obsequious loyalty to the president. Space prohibits listing many other such examples.
-- The incredible ineptness with which Bush has pursued conservative goals such as Social Security reform, while he has brought to bear every ounce of power at his disposal to ram though Congress an immigration bill that is viewed as abhorrent by most conservatives. If it becomes law, it will only be because of heavy support from Democrats, who correctly view the addition of millions of new Hispanic voters as a major boon to their party. Meanwhile, Bush gives short shrift to his conservative critics, just as he did in the Miers incident. This has led many of his formerly fervent conservative supporters to conclude that he essentially views them and their concerns with total contempt.
All of this has made the Republican soil highly fertile for a dissident campaign based on a genuine conservative message, such as that being offered by Ron Paul. I still don't think he can win the nomination, but he may end up playing a role not dissimilar to that played by Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic nominating process in 1968. He didn't win, either, but forced Lyndon Johnson to retire and ultimately shaped the direction of the Democratic Party for decades to come.