Even as Barack Obama gradually climbs in national polls, more than a handful of the president’s once-ardent admirers suddenly seem more attracted by Ron Paul. Long disappointed by Obama’s overly solicitous attitude toward banking, defense and national security interests — at the expense of economic justice and civil liberties — these disappointed critics find a satisfying echo in Paul’s assaults on the banks, the Federal Reserve System, the military-industrial complex, and indeed the entire American super-structure, including the miserably failed war on drugs. As a libertarian, he doesn’t actually share the liberal perspective on these issues, but sometimes sounds as if he does.
For some people, perhaps, that is enough.
As a seasonal fad unlikely to persist beyond Iowa, a minor liberal flirtation with Paul wouldn’t matter at all. While he has provided much entertainment over the past few weeks, scaring the Republican establishment with his anybody-but-Romney climb in the polls, he undoubtedly understands that he will not be the nominee of their party (and in calmer moments, so do they). His prescriptions for government and the economy may be misguided, to put it kindly, but his passionate support for the Bill of Rights is refreshing, especially because so many Republicans and too many Democrats are prepared to snip or even scrap that document. So is the consistency of his current stands on such issues as narcotics, marriage, and military engagement abroad. Which are only the most obvious reasons he will always be rejected by the GOP, even as his dedicated supporters occasionally win a momentary victory in a straw poll or a pseudo-convention.
But what if Paul should decide to run on the Libertarian Party ticket next year? He ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988, and he has coyly hinted that he might do so again in 2012, with that party’s leaders practically begging him to accept their nomination when the Republican primaries end. He could either defeat former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who recently announced that he has left the Republican Party to seek the Libertarian nomination — or ask Johnson, who supported Paul in 2008, to join the ticket as his vice presidential candidate. In many respects, Ron Paul for President is as much a family business as an ideological crusade, so the incentives for him to continue into November will be powerful.
For liberals who are drawn to Paul as an outspoken critic of the Federal Reserve, the military budget, and the wars on terrorism and drugs, that would pose a challenge. Like Ralph Nader in 2000, Paul could offer them a tempting opportunity to express their weariness with compromise and complexity; once more they could vote their conscience and voice their frustration. The moral hurdle would be much higher than with Nader, a genuine American icon who carries none of Paul’s embarrassing baggage. At the very least, Nader upheld traditional progressive ideals for government, the economy and the environment — while Paul would eagerly repeal a century of advances on all those fronts, if he could.
But for those willing to overlook the racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and paranoid Ron Paul newsletters — as well as their putative author’s feeble, implausible, and changeable explanations for them — the Texas Congressman might claim to be an alternative to that tired-old-two-party, lesser-of-two-evils ballot choice.
That would appeal only to progressives who suffer from historical amnesia, the chronic affliction of American politics, and were thus unable to recall the consequences of Nader’s third-party candidacy. One of those consequences, ironically enough, was the war in Iraq, which probably would not have occurred if Al Gore hadn’t forfeited the electoral votes that Nader threw to George W. Bush. Another consequence was the abandonment of the US commitment to mitigate climate change, which dwarfs even the economic debacle of the past few years in its potential toll on humanity. A third consequence was the spike in economic inequality encouraged by Bush tax, spending, and regulatory policies — which will someday seem moderate in retrospect, if Obama loses next year to Mitt Romney with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress.
The Nader supporters of 2000, a fraction of the liberal electorate, didn’t get the policies they so urgently desired, of course. They didn’t even get a viable Green Party or a lasting movement for change. Instead, they helped to inflict a political disaster from which America has scarcely begun to emerge. In the new year, we may discover whether they wish to revive that nightmare.