View from Australia: Whither the Ron Paul party?

By Jonathan Bradley

So December is to be the month of Ron Paul...

Polls [PDF] put him in the lead in Iowa, where the nomination season will officially kick off on January 3, with the state's caucuses. The New York Times's elections guru Nate Silver currently predicts Paul will finish first in those caucuses. The betting website InTrade has the Texas Congressman with a 42.9 per cent chance to win Iowa, and gives him an outside shot of 8.4 per cent to win the GOP nomination.

Ron Paul might win Iowa, but he won't be the Republican nominee for president in 2012. I discussed why at the USSC blog yesterday:

The primaries are about the Republican Party choosing someone it wants to represent it in the election next November, and Ron Paul is far too far outside the Republican mainstream to be its figurehead. I see speculation ... that he could win Iowa. The theory behind this is that he’s well organized and his supporters are passionate, and Iowa rewards candidates with those traits.

The notion that Ron Paul could successfully win the nomination is based on a misunderstanding of the primary process. It supposes that a candidate who runs a clever enough campaign could "trick" a party into nominating him, despite that party having vast and significant ideological differences with that candidate.

How vast are the idelogical differences between Ron Paul and the rest of the Republican party? Dave Weigel outlines what would come out if Paul's opponents are forced to take him seriously: 

If Paul wins Iowa, that stops. The conservative press, which has been bored but hostile to Paul all year (just see the National Review’s cover story), will remind its readers that Paul wants to legalize prostitution and narcotics, end aid to Israel (as part of a general no-aid-for-anyone policy), and end unconstitutional programs like Medicare and social security. The liberal press will discover that he’s a John Birch Society supporter who for years published lucrative newsletters studded with racist gunk. In 2008, when the media didn’t take him seriously, Paul was able to get past the newsletter story with a soft-gummed Wolf Blitzer interview. (“Certainly didn't sound like the Ron Paul that I've come to know and our viewers have come to know all this time,” said Blitzer.) This was when Paul was on track to lose every primary. It’ll be different if the man wins Iowa.

If the Republican Party were going to nominate a man like this, it would be a very different party. It would be the Ron Paul party, and a man like Paul would be one of its heavyweights, not an oddity stepping briefly into the spotlight. It would not be a party that tells Politico a victory by Paul would be so far outside its self image that it could delegitimise the Iowa caucuses completely:

With his left-of-Obama foreign policy views, libertarian outlook on social issues and paper trail of controversial statements, a Paul victory could represent a potentially devastating blow to the tradition of Republicans starting their White House campaigns in Iowa.

“Mortal,” said Doug Gross, a leading Republican lawyer and Branstad adviser, when asked how severe the wound of a Paul win would be.

“I think a Paul win would be devastating for the state of Iowa and the caucus process,” added Sam Clovis, an influential talk radio host in Northwest Iowa who endorsed Rick Santorum Monday.

The point of the primary system is to permit a wide array of party supporters and sympathisers to settle on a single candidate whom they can accept as their standard bearer in the general election. The process is not designed so that the majority of the party wakes up on the morning of the convention and find themselves forced to accept someone with whom they strenuously disagree on an array of significant issues.

The Republican party may dislike some of Obama's foreign policy decisions, and it may be fostering an increasingly isolationist rump, but as recently as 2008, 74 per cent of its supporters did not consider it a mistake to have sent troops into Iraq. It still wants government prohibition of gay marriage and is opposed to drug legalisation. Most of them would prefer to reform, rather than dismantle, programs like Medicare and Social Security. They overwhelmingly back Israeli foreign policy in the Middle East and want the US to continue to support it.

Sometimes campaigns can make clever use of procedural oddities to enhance their position. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used polls in early states to increase their national profile. In 2008, Obama focused his attention on states that conducted caucuses so as to maximise the delegates his well-organised campaign could claim. In perhaps the best example of all of the modern primary era, George McGovern, in 1972, captured the nomination over a number of party bigwigs by running a grassroots campaign chanelling opposition to the war in Vietnam.

But everyone understands how the modern primary process works now, which could not be said of campaigns in 1972. And every primary season winner since then has been basically acceptable to his party at large. Obama might have picked up a stray delegate here and there thanks to clever tactics, but he — just like his opponent, Hillary Clinton — was a qualified nominee who the party was happy to have.

Ron Paul is not a nominee who reflects the ideology of today's Republican Party. Fanciful scenarios — perhaps he can win Iowa, then scrape a victory in New Hampshire. Chase that with a good showing in South Carolina, and he'll surely have a weakened and never-popular Mitt Romney on the ropes! — confuse the democratic process of the primary system with a chess game.

In chess, a pawn can make it to the other end of the board and become a queen. In politics, strategy has its limits. A Republican Party that would nominate Ron Paul is one that does not look like the Republican Party that exists today.

21 December 2011