Ron Paul’s supporters can rationalize his failure however they want, but his ideas simply aren’t popular enough to spark a revolution.
Republican presidential hopeful, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, gestures during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Given that it never really had a chance of succeeding, the presidential campaign of Republican Congressman Ron Paul was quite a wild ride. Almost overnight, Paul became an online anti-war sensation, and even some on the left took an interest in Paul’s tech-savvy, aggressively libertarian campaign, which spent 2007 winning online polls, picking up tens of thousands of MySpace and Facebook supporters, and breaking fundraising records. Yet even all of this wasn’t enough for Paul to compete in the race—his only decent showings came in a few, small states (his best result came in Montana’s somewhat odd caucus, where he netted 25 percent of the vote), and he mustered just 7.7 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, which was supposed to be a very Paul-friendly state due to its libertarian leanings. Though he has yet to officially withdraw, he has strongly hinted that he plans to. (The fact that he’s been mathematically eliminated from the race doesn’t help his cause, either.)
Now that Paul’s campaign is over, his supporters are spinning his run as the first step in a much larger movement. They’re nothing if not fervent, and outside observers have noted their dedication. Eve Fairbanks of The New Republic suggested that they are the “Deaniacs” of 2008. And Reason magazine took this comparison a step further in a piece that asked, “What next for the Ron Paul revolution?” The author, Dave Weigel, wondered if Paul’s dedicated cadre will, in the long run, impact politics in much the same way as Howard Dean’s. (After losing the 2004 presidential primary, of course, Dean was elected as the head of the Democratic National Committee.) And Paul’s supporters see a rosy future for libertarians. “[W]hether or not Ron Paul is inaugurated as President next January, a mass movement of people have created the tools that provide the means to displace the present morass of government. We will change the world,” one pro-Paul blogger wrote recently.
But despite the rhetoric of Paul and his supporters, there’s less here than meets the eye. The “Ron Paul revolution” is over, and perhaps never really existed at all. Paul’s ideas, it turns out, aren’t of much use to anyone on the left or the right. His rise to the status of an Internet phenomenon and a (temporarily) wildly successful fundraiser had more to do with the fractured GOP field and the country’s dissatisfaction with the war than with any surge in libertarian sentiments. Paul had very little impact on the actual timbre of the presidential race, and, in the end, his most loyal supporters are too far from the mainstream to have a lasting impact on American politics. When even the Republican Party has accepted the welfare state, radical libertarianism has about as much appeal in the United States as Marxism.
Paul campaigned on issues that haven’t been anyone else’s priority for nearly a century. Who else wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and return to a gold standard? And who seriously wants to eliminate paper money? Paul has said he would put border security in the hands of those whose property lies along our national boundaries. He’s written, falsely, that “the notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers.” And what about Paul’s famous stance against the war in Iraq? Unfortunately, it’s based on the kind of isolationism that would end all foreign aid, which is not a realistic foreign policy vision.
And Americans aren’t just cool on Paul’s specific (and specifically bad) policy proposals; they just don’t have a huge amount of patience with libertarianism in the first place. A 2006 poll by the Pew Center found that only 9 percent of Americans identify as “libertarian.” Like any other political designation, “libertarian” can mean a lot of things. Some self-styled libertarians simply don’t like paying taxes. But for a broad movement to coalesce around Paul and his message, a much larger chunk of America would need to suddenly become sympathetic to a host of far-out ideas like using gold coins instead of paper dollars. As one insightful reader of Paul enthusiast Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote, “rather than being the Republican version of Howard Dean, Ron Paul's movement is becoming the next generation of Larouchies. While some of his supporters are the more reasonable and libertarian wing of the party… Many of them drift past being libertarianism to almost being anarchists, believing, not in small government, but practically no government.” So maybe if Paul’s movement were based on principles broadly shared by most Americans, it would be possible to look past his lack of tangible electoral success. But the ideas that undergird his movement aren’t popular at all.
There are also other reasons to believe that the allegedly grassroots nature of Paul’s campaign is an illusion. His forthright proclamations that the war was a terrible idea gained him great attention in the media—especially online—and some astonishing fundraising numbers. But this was the result of being in the right place at the right time: For moderately libertarian-leanings voters disgusted with the war in Iraq and the excesses of the Bush administration, but with no interest in most liberal fiscal or social policies, there was nowhere else to turn. Paul was their man simply because there were no alternatives. Paul spoke at Georgetown a few weeks ago, and at his speech I sat next to an affable British writer for the American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s paleocon magazine and one of the few right-wing publications that endorsed Paul. Though the Brit liked the Texas Congressman, he also confessed that the magazine felt there weren’t many other options on the ballots. Surely this writer’s views were echoed countless times by Paul’s supporters, who in other years may not have given him more than a passing glance.
Once it became apparent that Paul wasn’t going to gain the support of the traditional GOP constituencies, and early primaries demonstrated that he lacked tangible support, people lost interest. And, despite the spin of his supporters, this wasn’t even a moral victory; unlike former Democratic candidates John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, Paul did not impact the tone of his party’s primary. While Edwards and Kucinich pulled the front-runners to the left on issues of poverty, Iraq, and trade, the Republican leaders continued to remain in favor of the war and to ignore Paul’s more abstract concerns about the federal reserve, the gold standard, and federalism. Even in this small measure of shifting the conversation, Paul has not seen success.
Though Paul’s supporters seem ready to turn Paul’s campaign into a movement, they will be hard-pressed to convince many other Americans to get on board. If all of Paul’s fundraising and exposure couldn’t get him real support from Republicans who sympathize with his views, a nebulous movement below the media’s radar probably won’t do much more. So, what can Paul supporters celebrate? Well, they did rent that blimp. That was cool.
This article has been edited from its original version.