He hasn’t won yet, of course, and if he does we won’t get a terribly accurate picture from his supporters of why they gravitated toward him. But in my own wildly speculative view:
- Contra David Frum, Ron Paul is not the candidate of “indifference” to the economic situation. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the main substantive reason why Paul is getting more traction this time than last time around is precisely the economic crisis, and popular fury about it. Paul’s policy prescriptions are, in my view and in Frum’s (and in Andrew Sullivan’s, for that matter), insanely wrong – certain to badly exacerbate our plight, not to ameliorate it. They are reactionary, anti-modern, rooted in ignorance not knowledge. But they are an authentic response. Paul is not saying everything was fine in 2007. His is a deep and radical critique of business as usual. But a vote for him will not mean “I don’t care about the economic crisis.” It’ll mean, “I am convinced that Washington has no idea how to resolve the economic crisis, and, as a consequence, I am open to extremely radical and dangerous alternatives to the status quo.”
- I also don’t think Paul is getting much support because of his radical opposition to the foreign policy consensus. But I agree with Daniel Larison that if Paul wins, the fact that he will have won in spite of flouting that consensus is significant. Andrew Sullivan says his priority is “remaking” the GOP on foreign policy by opening up debate. Paul himself cannot make that debate happen – because he’s a rigid ideologue and his opponents are mostly behaving like thugs and hysterics. A debate of that sort isn’t really a debate at all. But if Paul wins Iowa, and does well in New Hampshire, he’ll have established that, in a post-9-11 world, there is room not to toe the line on foreign policy questions, room for someone with pragmatic views more like Dick Lugar’s (or Mitch Daniels’s) to run and not do what Romney and Huntsman have been doing. To a much lesser extent, I think the same thing can be said of civil liberties concerns.
- But it probably won’t mean anything at all. Mike Huckabee won in 2008. I haven’t noticed that the GOP field this year has been tripping over itself to win Huckabee’s support. Pat Buchanan nearly tied Bob Dole in 1996, but after that the party moved away from him, not towards him, on basically all his issues. Pat Robertson’s constituency has only gotten more important since 1988, but he himself probably reached the peak of his influence that year, and his constituency has remained important in part because it has proven to be domesticable – they have not demanded a radical change in much of anything in exchange for their votes. If Paul’s voters turn out to be similarly domesticable, one can debate how important they will turn out to have been. If not, I find it doubtful that the GOP will consider changing much to win them over.