Let us stipulate that Ron Paul is a highly imperfect messenger. He has all too frequently trafficked in conspiracy theories; his justifiable caution about government can veer uncomfortably close to paranoia. He has not had a truly convincing explanation for how his name ended up attached to newsletters in the 1980s that contained racist and anti-Semitic writings. And some of his advisers and associates have more than dubious backgrounds.
Let us also stipulate that Paul is not going to be the Republican nominee for president. If he wins Iowa, as polls now indicate is possible, he may well run second in New Hampshire, further deflating Newt and guaranteeing a long, drawn-out primary process. But after that, it’s hard to see where Paul wins outside of some western caucus states. And if he does stay near the front of the pack, the full weight of the Republican establishment will descend on him with a wrath hitherto unseen.
But, all that said, it is worth asking why his message seems to be catching on. Could it be that in a race where the frontrunners are the godfather of Obamacare and a guy who wants to fight crime by installing giant mirrors in space to illuminate our cities at night, there is an unmet desire among grassroots Republicans for a genuine limited-government conservative?
At a time when our country is drowning in debt, the other GOP candidates seem unwilling to venture much beyond the idea of cutting “fraud, waste, and abuse.” Paul, on the other hand, has a specific plan to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget next year, including abolishing five cabinet agencies. That may or may not be practical, but it speaks to those seeking a smaller, less costly, less intrusive government, in a way that other candidates, with their 59-point plans for carefully trimming this agency or that, do not.
Even on foreign policy, an area where Paul diverges most from the GOP mainstream, voters seem sympathetic to Paul, particularly when it comes to the idea that not every world hot spot represents an existential threat to America. There is good reason to wonder what victory in Afghanistan would really look like. They ask if war with Iran is the only solution. And, when we are committing more troops and treasure to countries as unrelated to national security as Uganda, they ask whether there is any limit to U.S. commitments. They may not answer these questions by proposing the same degree of non-involvement as Representative Paul, but neither are they excited by other candidates’ bellicosity.
Small-government Republicans have increasingly felt neglected in a Republican coalition dominated by social conservatives and defense hawks. The rise of the Tea Party should have been the first warning that there was discontent on the economic Right. The unexpected success of Ron Paul should be delivering a similar message.
Small-government, constitutionalist, economic conservatives are now demanding an equal place at the Republican table. It’s a message Republicans should pay attention to, no matter how flawed the messenger.
Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.