The Ron Paul Revolution Continues

If they continue to malign and ignore the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, GOP elders will be slamming the door on their future.

For most of this campaign season, an unassuming septuagenarian has been striking terror in the hearts of the Republican establishment. Much as he did in 2008, Ron Paul has exposed a rift within the Republican Party between small-government, anti-war libertarians and big-government, pro-war neoconservatives. Although Paul has yet to win a plurality in any state, he more than doubled his 2008 vote percentage in Iowa and tripled it in New Hampshire. He retains an enthusiastic following, particularly among younger voters. And he will make a lasting mark on the Republican Party, and the United States, if his followers remain active in politics after he leaves the scene. Whether they will do so, as well as which party they will call home, remains very much in doubt.

Much as in 2008, differences over foreign policy define people's impressions of Paul. He and his supporters think that America's recent wars have undermined the country's security and prosperity, which rankles those who believe that Paul justifies acts of terrorism against the United States by seeking to explain why they occur. National Review's Rich Lowry has labeled Paul a "blame America first" Republican -- a sentiment that others in the GOP seem to share.

The amorphous Tea Party movement, meanwhile, speaks with no unified voice and is especially inscrutable when it comes to foreign policy. In an early survey of Republican members elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010, my Cato Institute colleague Benjamin H. Friedman concluded that the incoming class was no less hawkish than the incumbents whom they ousted. A recent New Yorker article observed that Tea Party voters are not more inclined to support Paul, even though his own campaign literature bills him as the "Godfather of the Tea Party," and other profiles have dubbed him the "Tea Party's Brain."

In the face of this resistance, Paul is not only doing better this year than four years ago, but also better than in any of his other nationwide campaigns, including his run on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988. Unlike with some politicians, the shift in interest is not attributable to a late conversion on the part of the candidate. Paul's views haven't changed much over his nearly four-decade political career. His railing against the Federal Reserve and warnings about the perils of government power long attracted a following, but never a very large one.

So, what changed? In short, people's attitudes toward the country's wars and their concerns about the country's debt, which the wars have exacerbated. When the Iraq war went south and the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan morphed into a quixotic nation-building crusade, Paul's bold stance against both wars earned him plaudits from those on the left who do not share his libertarian philosophy. Now, some on the right have begun to embrace Paul's views as well. In addition to his strong performances in several recent primaries and caucuses, he has done well in various straw polls, including last year's Values Voter Summit and the 2010 and 2011 meetings of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

There is an inherent logic to Paul's foreign policy that should appeal to small-government conservatives. For one thing, conservatives' doubts about Washington's ability to accomplish particular ends, no matter how well-intentioned, should multiply when the government project involves violence in foreign lands. Americans who doubt the U.S. government's ability to reform health care should be doubly skeptical about its efforts to reform Afghanistan.

Those concerned about government power should also appreciate, as Paul does, that war has almost always led to the expansion of the state's size and power at home. And he is hardly alone. "War is a friend of the state," Nobel laureate Milton Friedman explained. "In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do." We have seen this in the creation of new government agencies and the erosion of civil liberties after the 9/11 attacks.

Paul's warnings against stationing large numbers of U.S. troops in foreign lands reveal an understanding about how the world works that transcends libertarianism. Conservatives who comprehend that people aren't inclined to pay for goods if Uncle Sam foots the bill should understand why wealthy allies in Europe and Asia will free-ride, taking U.S. protection as an opportunity to scrimp on defense and splurge on other things.

Ignoring this dynamic, Paul's Republican opponents are calling for spending even more money that the United States doesn't have. They think that the $5.7 trillion now planned for military budgets over the next decade isn't nearly enough. Mitt Romney promises to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon's base budget, plus whatever more is needed for any wars that he may want to fight. If Romney is serious about fulfilling his pledge (which, given his track record, is far from assured), he would spend an additional $2.5 trillion on the military over the next decade. His military budget in 2022 would top $1 trillion -- 61 percent more than current projections. And Romney has not explained which taxes he would increase or what other spending he would cut to cover that increase, which suggests that he would kick the problem to future generations in the form of more debt. No wonder young people like Paul.

Military spending is not the main cause of America's fiscal crisis, and cutting military spending won't solve it. But Republicans who argue that "the common defense" is one of the few legitimate functions of government and that therefore the Defense Department budget should be the last one cut after every other department must come to grips with the fact that most of what Americans spend on their military goes to defending foreigners.

This arrangement suits people in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike, but many people outside the Beltway hunger for a, yes, humbler foreign policy. Short of that, they would like to see a less militarized one. As AlterNet's Adele Stan recently explained, Paul's anti-war rhetoric "satisfies this deep spiritual yearning" among progressives to "hear someone say that we shouldn't be bombing other people around the world." On the other end of the ideological spectrum, even as she explicitly rejected Paul's foreign-policy views, Sarah Palin warned after the Iowa caucuses that "the GOP had better not marginalize Ron Paul and his supporters … because Ron Paul and his supporters understand that a lot of Americans are war-weary and we are broke."

That sentiment is especially true for Paul's enthusiastic young backers who regularly cite concerns about the growth of government and debt as their reasons for supporting him in the first place. They also fret over the loss of civil liberties and privacy rights under the pretext of the "war on terror." These young people are powering the burgeoning Students for Liberty (SFL) movement that has grown in just five years to more than 730 student groups. And they have their eyes on the future. "The large number of young people supporting Ron Paul," explains SFL's Alexander McCobin, "support the ideas he is advocating and are preparing to carry those ideas on when Ron Paul is no longer a public figure."

For now, however, Paul is enjoying the support of these motivated 20-somethings. In the seven states that have held either primaries or caucuses so far and for which we have reliable polls broken down by age, Paul won a plurality of the youth vote (18- to 29-year-olds) in five of them. He garnered the support of 48 percent of young Iowa caucus-goers and 46 percent of the youth vote in New Hampshire.

Paul also draws support from Democrats and independents who cross over to vote for him in the states where such party-switching is allowed (he garnered a larger share of the independent vote than any other candidate in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada) and from liberal bloggers with a civil-libertarian streak such as Salon's Glenn Greenwald. Predictably, then, skeptics suggest that Paul's backers aren't true Republicans and can safely be ignored.

They are only half-right on the first point and entirely off the mark on the second. Paul's supporters favor limited government, fiscal discipline, sound money, low taxes, fewer regulations, and less government spending. They could be Republicans, and many genuinely are. Meanwhile, Romney, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich could win the votes of every single registered Republican and still lose the election by a landslide. Self-identified Republicans represent just 27 percent of the electorate, compared with 31 percent who identify as Democrats and a record-high 40 percent who call themselves independents. Republicans must figure out a way to tap into those ideas of Paul that have bipartisan appeal, even if Ron Paul the person isn't the party's standard-bearer.

Paul's harshest critics like to dismiss him as an isolationist, but they should tell that to the tens of millions of Americans who want to remain engaged in the world without trying to run it. Paul's message appeals to those Americans who have tired of being held responsible for everything bad that happens in the world and always being on the hook to pick up the costs. A CNN survey last year found that just one in four Americans relished the United States' being the world's "policeman," and a Rasmussen poll concluded that a mere 11 percent of likely voters support that mission.

A big part of what people find so refreshing about Paul, however, limits his broader appeal. People like that he is not a typical politician -- that he speaks bluntly and from the heart. At times, however, his remarks betray a degree of disinterest that undermines his message. Paul, for example, seems to imply that he would do nothing at all to try to halt or slow Iran's nuclear program, when his focus should be on why the solutions proposed by the other leading candidates in the Republican presidential field are unlikely to solve the problem and would likely make it worse.

Paul is unlikely to win the Republican nomination, but he may have awakened a sleeping giant. Don't be surprised if a more polished politician -- in either party -- emerges in 2015 or 2016 and aggressively courts those Americans who see war as corrosive to freedom at home and want their military to focus on defending the United States and its citizens. On the other hand, if Republican leaders show Paul and his legions out the door, they will be turning away many of the same swing voters who turned the tide against the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008 and then swung back in their direction in 2010.

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Not-So-Super Tuesday

The real winner of the Republican primary is Barack Obama.

"No one ever gains votes in a national election by going through the presidential primaries," Bill Clinton remarked ruefully in 1992. "They're designed to chew you up and spit you out."

That maxim has never been more apt than during this Republican primary season. As Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum do battle this Super Tuesday, March 6, they have dug themselves ever farther into the mire of a hard-line conservatism that is woefully out of step with America's changing electorate. No matter who wins on Super Tuesday, the Republican Party will have a huge problem expanding beyond its base and forging a winning coalition.

Start with Hispanics -- who accounted for 55 percent of population growth in the last decade -- and the immigration issue. Romney, who is typically viewed as the "moderate" in the race, has been aggressively conservative in this area in an effort to outflank his more ideological opponents. He has promised to veto the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal aliens who came to the United States as minors with their parents, opposes in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, and raised a much-mocked scheme for their "self-deportation." More generally, he has consistently sneered at any sign of softness among his primary opponents on these issues, raising the specter of an increasing flood of illegal immigrants coddled by the law and provided with benefits they don't deserve.

No wonder Hispanics, despite the bad economy and concerns about the level of deportations on President Barack Obama's watch, are supporting the president at levels above those he received in 2008, when 67 percent voted for him, compared with 31 percent for John McCain. Indeed, a just-released Fox News poll -- not usually considered a Democrat-friendly source -- has Obama garnering 70 percent of the Latino vote, compared with just 14 percent for his closest Republican opponent, an incredible 5-1 ratio.

Given Obama's expected high support from African-American voters, this suggests that the president could certainly match his 80 percent overall support from minority voters in 2008. If that comes true, he has huge leeway to lose white votes. Amazingly, he could approach the levels at which congressional Democrats lost the white working class (30 points) and white college graduates (19 points) in the wipeout 2010 midterm election and still win the popular vote.

That's not a high bar, and right now it looks like Obama will clear it with ease. In fact, it looks like the president could approach, and perhaps exceed, his 2008 performance among these voters.

Part of the reason for this is the virulent strand of social conservatism, on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to abortion to contraception, on display in the Republican primaries. The differences among the Republican candidates, with the sole exception of Ron Paul, are minor -- and well to the right of the American public. The latest manifestation is the candidates' uniform backing for the Blunt amendment, which would have allowed any employer to opt out of providing birth control coverage for "moral" reasons. That has been accompanied, of course, by the embarrassing spectacle of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh denouncing a Georgetown University law student as a "slut" for testifying in favor of birth control coverage.

This hasn't gone over well with voters, especially white, college-educated voters, who tend to be relatively liberal on these issues. And it may be one reason that Romney's appeal among these voters -- despite his so-called moderate views -- may be evaporating. Recent polls show him running at about where McCain did with this group in the 2008 presidential election (a modest 4-point margin) and sometimes worse.

Even more terrifying for the Republican Party, Romney appears incapable of capturing the large margins among white working-class voters that Republican candidates need in order to win a general election. In a just-released NBC poll, Romney's margin among these voters was a mere 5 points, far less than McCain's 18-point margin in 2008 and less still than the 25 points or more Romney probably would need in order to win, given the United States' shifting demographics.

Romney's wealth and general cluelessness about ordinary workers' lives -- his latest gaffes include saying that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs" and admitting that though he does not follow NASCAR, he has "some great friends who are NASCAR team owners" -- may make him a particularly poor standard-bearer for this demographic. The Republican candidates, however, also all subscribe to a range of positions -- opposition to the auto-industry bailout, opposition to raising taxes on the rich, support for Rep. Paul Ryan's unpopular Medicare "reform" plan, and support for attacks on collective bargaining -- that do not endear them to these voters. Again, the primary process has brought these positions forcefully to voters' attention.

All this -- combined, of course, with the improving economy -- spells big trouble for the Republican nominee, no matter who he is. That doesn't mean the candidate who gets the nomination is doomed to lose, but it does mean that candidate is likely to pay a significant price for the Republican Party's refusal to compromise its ideology in the face of a changing electorate.

In a sufficiently bad economy, perhaps that price wouldn't have mattered. One suspects that relying on a stagnant economy was always Plan A for the Republicans, especially Romney. But now, with the economy on the upswing, Plan A doesn't look so good. And Plan B? If there ever was one, the Republican primary process has killed it off.

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