Ron Paul and the Libertarian Moment "Freedom in our time" — is it possible?

The news that a Rasmussen poll has Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) running in a dead heat against President Barack Obama in a hypothetical Paul-Obama face-off for the White House has the pundits fuming. Ben Smith, over at Politico, can hardly contain his annoyance: the poll "is a useful reminder of how totally flaky early polling is," he rants, and "this is the Ron Paul who polled, literally, thousands of votes placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses," and then only breaking ten percent after everyone but McCain had bailed. This evaluation depends on a static model, however: back then, there was no bank bailout, no insurance industry takeover, no tea party movement, and Ron had no real public record to run on — the 2008 campaign, in short, was a way for the country to get to know Rep. Paul, and the Rasmussen poll is a clear indication they liked what they saw. Instead of invoking Paul’s showing in the Iowa caucus, it’s more useful to compare this poll to the results of another similar Rasmussen poll taken in 2008, in which, as the pollster reported, "For Ron Paul, 10% of all voters would definitely vote for him. Fifty-nine percent (59%) say it’s No, no matter what."

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Voter sentiment is now completely reversed: today, he’s in a dead heat with a sitting President. No matter how hard you try to minimize that, it’s an astonishing fact.

What Smith has to say about the perils of early polling would normally be accepted as beyond dispute: after all remember when Fred Thompson was the man to beat for the GOP nomination? However, we are not living in normal times, which I define as any period when Americans abandon their traditional attitude toward politics: i.e. indifference bordering on contempt. These days, the indifference has given way to not only awareness but also to active engagement, and the contempt for politicians has turned into a burning hatred, i.e. the very stuff and fuel of politics.

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What makes it possible for Paul to ride this untamed mare is that he isn’t a politician at all: he is, in fact, the archetypal anti-politician, a professorial figure who lectures Republicans on the gravity of their fiscal and foreign policy sins, and is about as charismatic as plain oatmeal served without milk and sugar. What’s more, he tells the public what politicians have been loath to tell their constituents, and that is the necessity of deflation and the bearing of economic pain. In Paul’s view, the economic bubble generated by the Federal Reserve‘s inflationary policies has led to the current downturn, and nothing less than gritting our teeth, cutting spending radically, and allowing the market to correct itself from government-induced distortions, is the cure.

His message, in short, is eat your spinach — not something any politician who hopes to keep his job (or get one) would normally say. But then again, as I said above, these are not normal times: far from it. The crisis of the American republic is acute, as we teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and our overseas empire shows every sign of imploding, just like the old Soviet Union — and, what’s more, the American people know it.

As our corporatist masters feast on our tax dollars in Washington, out in the provinces voters faced with economic ruin are looking for some explanation, a conceptual framework that gets at the root of the problem and provides some solution. Paul’s rising popularity is due to the fact that he does indeed have a consistent philosophical approach, one that has propelled him from being a mere marginal figure — a "gadfly," as they said — to a very real contender. Yes, that’s right, I said a contender for the White House: it’s real, it’s possible, and here’s why.

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Paul has consistently emphasized two themes that successfully capture the sentiments of the average American voter, and address the top two issues on their minds: 1) Fiscal sanity, and 2) A non-interventionist foreign policy. As regards the first point, Ron is the foremost opponent of government spending in Congress, and has earned the sobriquet "Dr. No" many times over. But of course practically all Republicans at least pay lip service to this ideal, although none that I know of lives up to it like Dr. Paul. However, it’s the second point — opposition to imperialism, and especially opposition to our crazed post-9/11 foreign policy of perpetual war — that is the key.

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As Paul explained at the CPAC conference — where he won the presidential preference poll — and on many other occasions, we can’t have our old republic back unless and until we rid ourselves of the empire we’ve acquired along the way to bankruptcy. Lecturing them on the evils of Woodrow Wilson‘s "progressivism," and the virtues of the Old Right’s Robert A. Taft, he received a standing ovation (as well as a few boos from the minuscule-but-loud David Frum Fan Club). A similar reception occurred at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where he came within a single vote of winning the presidential poll (losing only because the SRLC officials closed registration early, betting correctly that Paul’s youthful supporters wouldn’t show up until it was time to address the convention).

What’s interesting about this, from the perspective of my readers — a majority of whom are not libertarians, I dare say, and are not generally sympathetic to my "anti-government" views — is that the more Ron talks about the one subject that is supposed to rile Republicans — his foreign policy views — the more popular he gets. It was the leitmotif of his CPAC speech, and a main theme of his SRLC speech: his opposition to what he calls "the Empire" inveigles its way into most of his public utterances: even if he’s asked a specific question about, say, the economy, he emphasizes the impossibility of ever getting out of the economic slough we’re in unless we throw off the burden of empire.

Paul’s candidacy is interesting to the antiwar movement, because he has managed to mainstream ideas that were long considered too radical for the ordinary American to even bear hearing about. To even raise the idea that the 9/11 attacks were "blowback" — in CIA parlance, an unintended consequence of US policies — was once considered a cardinal, self-marginalizing sin. Yet Paul took this view from the beginning: that the attacks were the boomeranging after-effects of playing "king of the hill" in the Middle Eastern sandbox and succoring the Afghan "freedom fighters" (as Ronald Reagan called them) who later morphed into al-Qaeda.

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