Paul uneasily falls into a long-silenced tradition in Republican politics of isolationist thought. While Paul is often quick to note that he is not an economic protectionist (and thus, he claims, not an isolationist) he is, says Christopher Nichols, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on isolationism, more of a political isolationist. He doesn't want America to turn its back from the world; he wants rather to end all alliances and international arrangements to which the United States is a participant. Indeed, Paul is even more radical in his views than the Idaho Republican Senator William Borah and Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who were the standard bearers of GOP isolationism in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Nichols, Paul's foreign policy attitudes are much more influenced by his libertarian absolutism than by the legacy of Borah and Taft. It's been a long time since such positions have held much sway in the Republican Party -- and based on the reaction from establishment conservatives and the party's rank-and-file it doesn't appear to be gaining much traction, even with Paul's rising poll numbers.
Prominent conservatives from Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review to Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly have respectively labeled Paul a "blame America firster" with a poisonous view of the United States and a candidate whose foreign policy views "disqualify" him from the presidency.
Indeed, while Republicans might like some of the things that Paul has to say -- about foreign aid, the United Nations, and international trade -- generally speaking, the candidate has a fairly hard ceiling on how far he can rise within the GOP. In fact, his favorability in Iowa is higher among independent voters than it is among actual Republicans. Fein told me that he is confident once people hear Paul's views and he "racks up a few electoral victories" GOP voters will come around. We'll see, but it seems very difficult to imagine that anyone with Paul's foreign policy views could be the party's nominee in 2012.
What is perhaps most interesting about Paul -- and where his political potential might lie should he choose to run as a third-party candidate -- is in the support that he garners from across the political aisle. His attacks against America's military-industrial complex, his bemoaning of U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his strident criticism of the hyping of threats regarding Iran has endeared him to a host of liberal activists and commentators.
Rachel Maddow has applauded his lack of belligerency against Iran and even intimated that it's the reason he is leading the Iowa caucus (not really). Liberal activist Glenn Greenwald has attacked those who call Paul "crazy" for being opposed to foreign wars; Bill Maher said he'd vote for Paul and even progressive-leaning Jon Stewart joked that he likes Paul as our "idea guy" and imagines the septuagenarian libertarian as "America's Kramer." Paul recently also won the public endorsement of Obama supporter and nominal conservative Andrew Sullivan who argues that Paul's nomination could "break the grip of neoconservative belligerence on conservative thought and the Republican party could make space again for more reasoned and seasoned managers of foreign policy."
As Adele Stan, who has covered Paul closely for Alternet said to me, "progressives don't get Paul's anti-war talk from their own people (i.e. Democrats) and to hear it from him satisfies this deep spiritual yearning to hear someone say that we shouldn't be bombing other people around the world." Indeed, after ten years of war it's striking that Ron Paul has become the only presidential candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- talking about the need for a less militaristic foreign policy.