Ron Paul may be the Republican Party's latest incarnation of Barry Goldwater. Like the 1964 Republican Presidential nominee, Congressman Paul has been an election cycle or two ahead of public opinion. His presidential campaigns, however, may pave the way for a new wave of conservative Republican victories.
The Texas Republican has run for president twice before, once as a Libertarian and once as a Republican. His Libertarian views, however, distinguish Ron Paul from the current pack of GOP presidential candidates. For years Paul's views were considered outside the mainstream of even conservative Republican policy. But, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high, the economy in the tank and the federal deficit at record high levels, suddenly the congressman's views on fiscal matters have gained traction.
Congressman Paul is a vocal opponent of the Federal Reserve Board and the nation's central banking system. He blames the Fed for the boom-bust cycle that characterizes our national economy. Four years ago other candidates largely shied away from attacking the Fed, but now — with public frustration over the economy reaching the boiling point — the Fed has become something of a whipping boy.
Ron Paul's steadfast adherence to his Libertarian principles has created an unusual political phenomenon. The 75-year old physician has attracted a loyal cadre of support among the nation's college-aged students. They pack his events, and are vocal at those of other candidates. Students power Paul's performance in straw polls, including the recent Ames straw poll in Iowa where he finished a close second behind Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann.
So far, voters have largely not yet developed an emotional attachment to the other candidates. Mitt Romney, for example, inspires support but not passion. Social issue voters have several candidates from which to choose, as do tea party adherents, leaving many of them less committed to a specific individual. The Ron Paul supporters stand out from the crowd in the intensity of their support.
These advantages aside, Congressman Paul is unlikely to emerge as the eventual Republican nominee for President. It is axiomatic that to win the presidency as a Republican a candidate must have the united support of economic, social and foreign policy conservatives. Paul's position on the economy will put a check mark in the first box. But in the other two areas, he so far fails the test.
Paul's dust-up with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in the Iowa debate is indicative of his problem with foreign affairs conservatives. This is also where Paul loses the mainstream conservative voter. His opposition to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the "kinetic military action" in Libya do win him support, but he takes it too far by suggesting he would sit idly by while Iran develops nuclear weapons capabilities.
There no doubt is a rising tide of voter sentiment that America is overextended in our role as the world's policeman. In the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden support for the war in Afghanistan is dropping. The justification for U.S. involvement in Libya remains weak. Paul could capitalize on this if he didn't eschew U.S. military involvement under virtually all circumstances short of a direct attack on our homeland.
Paul's son, U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, did a good job on Fox News last weekend tempering his father's position. Senator Paul suggested his dad wants only "constitutional" military action; correctly pointing out President Obama failed to get congressional approval for military action in Libya. While that refinement moves Ron Paul closer to the main stream, his staunch anti-U.S. involvement position has set off alarm bells among much of the electorate.
The Texas congressman also has problems with social conservatives who actually welcome government involvement to the extent that is protects basic human rights, such as the right to life. Social conservatives also oppose the legalization of drugs, including marijuana.
At this early stage in the 2012 campaign Ron Paul's dedicated band of supporters will be significantly large enough to keep him the race. His support places him somewhere between the top and second tier of candidates. Like Barry Goldwater in 1964, Ron Paul has developed issue positions which animate a certain base, but concerns over his ability to lead the nation in foreign affairs are short-circuiting his candidacy. If he hopes to break into the top tier, he is going to have to do a better job of explaining his foreign policy positions. Otherwise he will go down in history for breaking ground that others successfully build upon.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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