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.