Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ron Paul: Analysis or Scoffing?

I often peruse a number of local blogs, including David Miller’s Pursuit of Liberty and Frank Staheli’s Simple Utah Mormon Politics. During the recent campaign cycle, Frank made clear his strong support for Ron Paul.

In a comment on a recent post of David’s, Frank accuses me of being among those that “scoffed at the idea that Ron Paul was the only real alternative.” I began to compose an answer to Frank’s charge, but soon realized that if I posted it, I would be inappropriately hogging David’s blog. So I thought I would write my own post on the matter.

If I scoffed at Ron Paul being the only real alternative, it was only due to what I believe to be a dose of reality. In January 2008 I explained that I differed with Paul on foreign policy. But I also differed with every other presidential candidate on at least some substantive issues. Depending on the nature of the policy and the candidate’s stance, support of a candidate isn’t necessarily ruled out by a few policy differences.

In the referenced post, however, I explained that Paul’s foreign policy stance came across as utterly unrealistic to most voters. Various polling later showed this to be correct. Nearly 15 months ago, people were generally unhappy with our nation’s foreign policy. But Ron Paul’s utopian libertarian approach to foreign policy seemed so impractical and idealistic that it rendered him an unserious candidate in the minds of most voters. It was the poison pill that kept people from taking anything else he said seriously.

Still, I never implied that voters shouldn’t support Ron Paul; only that few ultimately would support him. This is not simply due to his foreign policy statements. Paul has done much over the years to limit his appeal to the point that he is not broadly politically viable.

Some ardent Paul supporters delude themselves into believing that he would have had a reasonable chance of becoming president if only this or that might have been tweaked — if the media had treated him fairly or if the establishment hadn’t quashed him, for example.

All of these suppositions require the willing suspension of disbelief. Repeated polling found that Ron Paul enjoyed very deep support in very narrow categories. Pollsters knew that no amount of positive media coverage, money, or getting his message out would have expanded his support much beyond those narrow categories.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, enjoyed much broader support with depth in some categories. But his support was still regional, meaning that it was insufficiently broad to make him nationally competitive, even after spending unprecedented wads of cash. John McCain’s support was quite broad but very shallow. In the end, that was enough to win a party nomination but too weak to carry a general election.

In an interview I listened to during the campaign, Ron Paul essentially admitted that he was a ‘message’ candidate — that he was in the race to send a message and to influence the debate, rather than to win. That might be enough to gain the votes of those of us that found the other candidates unworthy of our support. But people that study political psychology can tell you that a major factor in most votes is the desire to be identified with the winner. Just sending a message isn’t enough for most voters. They want to win.

Again, you can argue all you want that if only some minor thing had been different, Ron Paul would have been viable enough for winner-oriented people to vote for him, but this is simply not a reflection of reality.

Like it or not, political races are as much popularity contests as anything else. For decades Ron Paul has created and marketed himself as a contrarian. This packaging necessarily limits his appeal and makes it impossible for him to win broad based support.

People appreciate criticism of the government. Carping about the government is a favorite American pastime. But Paul’s message is so stark as to seem to many to be a refutation of some things they have come to believe to be essential elements of what America means.

I state these criticisms of Ron Paul as an admirer of many of his positions and without intending derision. I am only putting forth my analysis of the matter. Regardless of how much I like some of what Ron Paul has to say, whether I put up yard signs supporting him, or whether I vote for him; the simple truth is that he is not and never will be a viable candidate for U.S. President.

I do not think that failure to enthusiastically support translates to scoffing. But, if trying to be an objective analyst makes one a scoffer, then I guess Frank is right.


Anonymous said...

Again, you manage to put my thoughts on the matter down very well. I have thought this about Ron Paul for at least a year. He can't win. Even though I agree with him on a lot. We just differ too much in approach and politics for me to vote for him.

Charles D said...

Interesting. I have to say that foreign policy is the only area where I agree with Ron Paul. Of course, we probably have different reasons for our belief that the US should stop involving itself in the affairs of other nations. I'm not philosophically opposed, I just think it isn't in our interest to do so.

Rep. Paul plays a somewhat similar role on the right to that played by Ralph Nader on the left. He runs to send a message, not with any hope or even desire of winning, and if he were not in the race his viewpoint would not be heard.

I wish we had a political system where voices like those of Paul and Nader could get a full and respectful hearing and voters weren't constantly coached by the media on who can and cannot win. Unfortunately for Dr. Paul, the only way we can achieve such an open political system violates his libertarian principles.

Anonymous said...

I would not have complained if you had responded at my site, but I agree that the response is more appropriate in your space than in mine. Thanks for sharing.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I agree that people like Nader and Paul deserve a fair hearing. If they can meet requirements, they deserve to be on the ballot. In the right kind of situation they can help influence the debate.

I also agree that the media plays a role in coaching voters on who can and can't win. But I'm not sure how significant that role is. Even back in the days when media was scarce, voters had a pretty keen ability to sniff out fringe candidates and steer away from them. I think the media has more influence when it comes to competitive candidates.

A friend in the media explained to me that the media has an interest in paring down the field of candidates because it costs a lot to spread reporting resources around to lots of campaigns. But the media doesn't want the field to reduce too drastically because hot competition sells news. He said that they actually don't mind fringe candidates that have some staying power, because they can always go there to gin up some news that will sell well.

As far as Ron Paul's foreign policy; I love the vision he paints. I just find it unrealistic. But what I really choke on is the way he plans to get to the utopian ideal. That is pure fantasy. Even if it could be implemented as he suggests, it would produce far more problems than it would solve.

Still, everyone that becomes president soon discovers some foreign policy realities the cause them to act differently than they campaigned. But people don't trust serious ideologues with matters of that nature. Folks fear that an ideologue would actually try to make good on his promises.

Charles D said...

Ron Paul isn't the only candidate who has utopian ideas that have little basis in reality - we elect guys like these every now and then.

IHMO, our political process (at least at the federal level) is bought and paid for and no longer belongs to the American people. Candidates and office holders have to spend the majority of their time raising money.

There are something like 10-12 lobbyists on Capitol Hill for every member of Congress. The media are only interested in controversy that increases reader/viewership, keeping a close relationship with the establishment power brokers in Washington, avoiding spending money on frills like investigative reporting, and making sure they don't offend their advertisers and corporate bosses.

We can call this a plutocracy or a corporatocracy but to call it a democracy is to live in a fantasy world.