Let us concede at the start that Ron Paul is not likely to be elected president. He neither looks nor sounds particularly presidential. He has a tendency to wander from his central message to discuss esoterica such as the gold standard. He lacks a professional campaign organization. He is an anti-war candidate in a pro-war party. And his campaign has attracted more than its share of conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements.
Yet it is undeniable that Paul has struck a chord with a large segment of disaffected Republicans.
His fundraising over the last few weeks has been phenomenal. Paul announced Sunday that he expects to raise more than $12 million this quarter, and possibly as much as $15 million. He already has set a record for the most money raised on a single day ($4.2 million) and vaulted into third place for cash on hand among the candidates ($2.4 million before his most recent successes).
Little more than an asterisk in polls just a couple of months ago, Paul is now running a respectable fourth in New Hampshire and closing in on double digits in other key states. As he spends some of the millions he has recently raised, that can only be expected to rise.
Some of Paul's appeal undoubtedly stems from his opposition to the war in Iraq. Polls show that as many as a third of Republicans oppose the war, and many others are deeply troubled by the seemingly endless conflict. With all the other Republicans trying to outdo one another at being the most belligerent-toward Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the world in general, Rep. Paul stands out. If you want to register opposition to the Bush foreign policy, but aren't willing to support the Democrats' version of tax-and-spend government, Ron Paul is the perfect vehicle.
But there is something more important at play here.
Under the Bush administration, the Republican Party has increasingly drifted from its limited-government roots. Instead, it has come to be dominated by a new breed of "big-government conservatives" who believe in using an activist government to achieve conservative ends - even if it means increasing the size, cost and power of government, and limiting personal freedom in the process.
The difference in the two camps is as clear as the difference between Ronald Reagan's saying, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," and George W. Bush's saying, "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."
Bush's brand of big-government conservatism brought us No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and a 23-percent increase in domestic discretionary spending. It may well have cost Republicans control of Congress. After all, on election night 2006, 55 percent of voters said that they thought the Republican Party was the party of big government.
Most of the current Republican candidates fall squarely into the big-government camp. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney imposed a Hillary Clinton-style health plan in his state and not only supports No Child Left Behind but calls for the federal government to buy a laptop computer for every child born in America. He thinks we should increase farm price supports.
John McCain has an admirable record as a fiscal conservative, but he shows a disturbing predilection for making a federal issue of every personal pet peeve from steroids in baseball to airplane service quality. He embraces heavily regulatory environmental policies that hurt businesses and cost jobs, such as expanding the Clean Water and Clean Air acts and implementing the Kyoto Protocols, and compulsory national service. More important, he is also the principal author of a campaign finance bill that severely restricts political speech.
Rudy Giuliani's record on civil liberties suggests he views the Constitution as an afterthought.
Fred Thompson talks a good game, but his record suggests he is closer to McCain-lite.
Mike Huckabee may be an even bigger spender than President Bush, and he never met a tax increase he didn't like.
Thus, when Ron Paul talks about returning to limited constitutional government, a great many Republican primary voters sit up and take notice. For voters hungering for a return to the party of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan rather than the party of George W. Bush, Paul's rhetoric is a breath of fresh air.
No, Rep. Paul is not likely to be our next president. But he is delivering a message that the other candidates would do well to heed. Is anyone listening?