What do the following have in common?
- Limits on the amount of money corporations can spend on political candidates
- Government regulations and testing to make sure children’s toys are not contaminated with lead
- Environmental Protection Agency standards ensuring clean water
- Laws protecting workers against sexual harassment in the workplace
- Laws protecting whistleblowing offshore oil workers from retaliatory firing
- Public schools
The answer? These are all things Ron Paul opposes.
Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: I respect Ron Paul personally. I think it is wonderful that he has remained true to his principles, and not conveniently changed his views for political gain. I admire his ability to unflinchingly take unpopular stands and break rank with his nominal party (I say “nominal” because although Paul is technically a Republican, it would be more accurate to describe him as a Libertarian). I like that he has brought obscure economic ideas into the public spotlight for debate. And, not for nothing, he also seems to me to be a genuinely honest guy.
So for that, I respect him. Of course, I also think he is generally unelectable and would make an awful president. This is the point at which I expect some people will stop reading and immediately begin pondering ways to decry this post as a vast conspiracy of big business, big government, and the media. But before that happens, let me just ask that this post be judged on its accuracy, rather than any emotional attachments to Paul’s candidacy.
Bizarrely, some Ron Paul supporters point to the fact that Paul was elected to Congress as evidence of his electability, regardless of the fact that he represents a district of only 651,619 Texans. To put that into perspective, that is about 0.2 percent of the United States population.
A more common claim is that his second and third place finishes in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively, support his electability. Of course, Rick Santorum finished second (or first, perhaps) in Iowa, but I have yet to hear someone tell me with a straight face that they think Santorum is electable, largely for the same reason that I think Ron Paul is unelectable: once the public takes Paul’s views to their logical conclusions, they will shy away.
Perhaps the Santorum comparison is unfair. After all, Rick Santorum’s views are extreme and out of touch with public opinion. Banning abortion under any and all circumstances? Bombing Iran? That’s crazy talk. Any Paul supporter will tell you that he wants to pursue commonsense reforms, like rolling back our overreaching military and cutting a bloated federal government.
Things start to break down when the discussion goes beyond these generalities into specifics. Paul’s libertarian utopianism envisions a country in which private industry self-regulates itself at almost every turn. Should the government ensure that citizens have clean drinking water? Or that every child has access to a public education? Most Americans think so, even if they advocate some sort of reform of the current system. But Paul eschews such things. This is an ideology based not in small, efficient government — but, rather, in no government (or, as close to no government as you can get).
The problem is that following his positions to their conclusions produce grim results in the real world. Unemployment benefits would end for thousands of people, causing a large contraction in demand in the economy, helping derail a fragile economy and causing greater hardship for the unemployed. Failure to raise the debt ceiling (an action against which Paul voted) would have caused enormous turmoil, and the first ever American default, exacerbating, rather than alleviating, the current economic situation. As it happened, the near-failure caused the first ever downgrade in America’s credit rating.
Many Americans agree that the Pentagon should share the sacrifice of spending cuts, but Paul’s advocacy of large-scale shuttering of overseas military bases is dangerously naive. Despite the harsh lesson America has learned about its own limitations over the past decade, it remains the global hegemon, and a stabilizing force. An Economist article notes the possible unintended consequences of military cutbacks in Europe:
The thinking behind the “rebalancing” looks flawed for several reasons. The first is that far from being on oasis of stability, EUCOM’s 51-country region covers some pretty flammable trouble spots, among them Georgia’s border with Russia, Kosovo’s border with Serbia and Turkey’s border with Iraq and Syria. Israel is also within EUCOM. There are less conventional security threats too, from terrorists moving between safe havens to cyber attacks.
The second is that—quite apart from possible flashpoints in its own region—Europe is closer to many of the fights that American forces may be committed to in the future than bases in the United States.
The third is that the new strategy places great emphasis on military-to-military co-operation with other countries. The best way of enhancing that is for American soldiers to train with their counterparts from other nations. General Hertling says that after training, the command’s second priority is to enter into effective partnerships with the many different countries in its region. “By sharing ideas, tactics and procedures,” he says, “you build trust with partners.” During the final readiness exercise before deployment to Afghanistan, the 172nd trained with troops from nine other countries, the same ones, notes the general, whom they would later find themselves fighting alongside.
And that article is talking about President Obama’s comparatively modest rebalancing of American forces. Paul advocates a much larger drawdown, which would inevitably gut NATO, and further weaken our military capacity and lessen global stability.
The thing is, people can get behind the generalities of his platform. They (rightly) do not think we should be overreaching in two simultaneous ground wars. But, more than that, I think people can get behind the Ron Paul persona. Americans love to identify with the underdog and the straight-talker, and Paul has both in spades. His unpolished speaking style has a genuine, endearing feel to it that many Americans take to heart. He’s that kindly old gentleman that could well be your own uncle (albeit, your slightly crazy old uncle).
And, indeed, polls of Republican primary voters show Paul ranks highly in questions about his personal character and human interactions. Voters say he stands up for what he believes in and is honest, and that counts for a something when faith in government (and Congress in particular) has fallen to new lows. Indeed, right now he is polling fairly well among independents.
But throw him in the general election and that will all change. His views will not only be revealed as outside the mainstream, but will also leave him open to attacks from both the right (on defense and social issues) and the left (on economic and labor issues). President Obama’s current edge in the polls when hypothetically matched against Paul would quickly expand.
Yet, for a moment, let us imagine a world in which Ron Paul wins the nomination and the presidency. What then? Well, as president, he would have little control over enacting his particular agenda and would face a Congress that has absolutely no interest in moving his legislation. The right would bristle against his demobilization, while the left would staunchly oppose gutting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. His average man persona would be of no help in dealing with Washington’s power brokers.
You thought the gridlock of the past few years has been bad? A Paul presidency would be a million times worse.
Economic liberalization and free trade agreements, which one might hope for from a libertarian candidate, would languish. This seems counter-intuitive, considering Paul’s ideology, but his voting record in Congress (against free trade agreements) shows that the strictures of his views lead him to the belief that free trade results from less government intervention, not from agreements with foreign nations. While wonderful in theory, this, of course, is utterly unrealistic.
Stymied by Congress and his own beliefs, Paul’s biggest effect would be through his appointive and veto powers, the latter of which he would undoubtedly use with relish. Congress, not up to the task of overriding his vetoes, would sit by helplessly as little to nothing becomes law. The de-stimulative effect of vetoed federal spending would shrink the economy (sorry, no more unemployment benefits for you, never mind that your job search keeps turning up nothing), possibly even pulling it into a double-dip recession, like the austerity-laden Europeans. Courts and federal agencies would be filled with people that believe the job they are being paid to do should not exist in the first place, and that the federal government has little role in anything at all. So, in sum, little would get done, but the effects would be long-ranging.
I appreciate Ron Paul’s character, his dedication, and his role in bringing alternative economic ideas to the public debate (no matter how incorrect I believe that they are). All of that makes him a man that I would love to sit down and have a nice, pleasant dinner with. What it does not make him is a good president.