Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican and a candidate for the presidential nomination, doesn’t mind long odds, and doesn’t mind standing alone.
In 2004, the House voted 414-1 for a resolution celebrating the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul not only voted no but gave a speech arguing that the act should never have been enacted. Employers who wish to discriminate against blacks, in his view, should be free to do so. A federal government that claims the power to override their decisions, he said, could also impose racial quotas. “Relations between the races have improved despite, not because of, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”
Most of Paul’s fellow libertarians are excited that he is doing well in the polls in Iowa, and hope that more Americans will be exposed to their political philosophy. But as Paul’s record on civil rights suggests, more familiarity with his brand of libertarianism won’t necessarily lead to much more support -- for him or for his cause.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy based on the minimization of coercion, with government limited fairly strictly to the prevention of force and fraud. Both prostitution and insider trading would be legal in a libertarian society. But libertarians sometimes have fierce internal splits, and not all of them support Paul.
Most libertarians, for example, were in favor of the recent free-trade pacts approved by Congress. Paul voted against them, as he usually votes against such deals, because he believes that the government should abolish all tariffs unilaterally rather than reduce some of them in deals negotiated with other governments. Similarly, he voted against the House Republican budget earlier this year -- the one that Democrats denounced for “ending Medicare as we know it” -- because it didn’t shrink the federal government enough.
Paul is also more culturally conservative than other libertarians. He opposes abortion, which he considers an infringement of the individual’s right to be free from violence. He has supported the Defense of Marriage Act, and wants to limit the jurisdiction of federal courts so that they can never force state governments to recognize same-sex marriage. On issues such as these, Paul differs with his fellow libertarian Republican Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor -- which was one reason socially liberal libertarians were glad Johnson joined the presidential race, to present another side of their philosophy.
Many of them were also dismayed by bigoted newsletters sent out under Paul’s name during the 1990s -- newsletters that Paul has disavowed, claiming that he didn’t review the offensive passages before their release and doesn’t know who wrote them.
Paul’s top issues in this campaign are foreign policy -- he opposes all U.S. military action except in response to attacks - - and monetary policy.
His foreign-policy stance has led him to sympathize with the regimes the U.S. government is most concerned about: In last week’s debate he tried hard to explain what the world looked like from the perspective of Iranian policymakers, and dismissed concerns that they are close to acquiring nuclear capability as “war propaganda.” It has also led him to hostility to Israel. It has led him to oppose, in retrospect, the Civil War, which even his fans worry might not be “a winning position.”
And it has led him, all too often, to conspiracy theory. “The CIA runs everything,” he said in a 2010 speech. “We need to take out the CIA.” He repeated the sentiment on the radio show of the 9/11 “truther,” and all-around conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones. Paul isn’t too fastidious about the company he keeps; he has said that he has “a lot of friends in the John Birch Society.” Nor is he above sending a discreet signal to such theorists that he shares their suspicions, as in his recent comment about the “glee” that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks caused in the Bush administration.
Paul’s views on money tend toward the apocalyptic. He has an idiosyncratic definition of inflation: Any expansion of the money supply qualifies, even if prices don’t rise as a result. But he has also regularly predicted that rising prices are just around the corner. He warned of “the very real possibility of hyperinflation in the near future” back in 1981, at the start of a three-decade-long trend of falling inflation that shows no sign of stopping.
It is possible that Paul will come in first in a fractured field in the Iowa caucuses: Those caucuses reward intensity of support, which he certainly has. The notion that he will be the Republican nominee is too absurd to spend a moment contemplating.
Somewhat more likely is that he will mount a third-party run in November 2012. But getting on the ballot will be difficult, especially in states that discourage primary-campaign losers from running in general elections. If he were to help the reelection of President Barack Obama by splitting the Republican vote, the party would probably hold it against his son and ally, Rand Paul, who is in his first year as a Republican senator from Kentucky and is widely considered more politically talented than his father. Does the elder Paul want to take that risk?
So over the next few weeks Paul’s ideas will probably get more attention than they have ever received before, or will ever receive again. Most people who examine them will reject them, for good reasons, while giving him credit for sincerity.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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