Ed Kilgore’s New Republic piece “What Does Ron Paul Want?” isn’t deep, but it correctly notes how hard the GOP is trying to sound like the Texas congressman on practically every issue except foreign policy and civil liberties. There’s a parallel here to the way in which the GOP once adopted, and adapted, much of Pat Buchanan’s style — particularly the cultural combativeness — while resisting his non-interventionism and economic nationalism. The 2004 GOP, and quite a bit of the 1994 GOP, aped Buchanan’s pitch and reaped considerable electoral rewards.
But the policies the party implemented were the opposite of those he advocated: more free trade agreements, more nation building and foreign intervention. A great many of Buchanan’s supporters — the Sarah Palin type — were fooled, or had never thought enough about what Buchanan was really arguing in the first place.
Will the same thing happen to Paul supporters?
Kilgore notes a difference: Ron Paul has his son, Sen. Rand Paul, to carry on his fight. “If anyone could bring anti-interventionist foreign policy into the mainstream of the GOP, it’s Rand.” But the Paul phenomenon is bigger than its standard-bearers, and the GOP establishment will eagerly assimilate anyone in the movement who doesn’t grasp the centrality of civil liberties and peace to Paul’s philosophy.
The Republican convention, where Paul delegates will have a considerable presence, will be a test for both sides. The party will want to channel RP supporters into something bold-sounding but harmless, and as far removed from questions of war and personal freedom as possible. (Or, if foreign policy is on the table, the establishment’s offer will be something nugatory: unenforceable platform language about Congress declaring war, or maybe a plank calling for keeping the UN out of America’s public parks.) Paul’s activists, on the other hand, will set themselves up to be dismissed as fringe troublemakers if their push-back isn’t smart — the party isn’t about to call for Donald Rumsfeld to be indicted for war crimes.
What would a substantial policy victory for the Paul camp look like? A victory, that is, that doesn’t give interventionists in the GOP “constitutionalist” cover, but that actually helps to distinguish the real constitutionalists from the fakes?
This is the most important question that Paul supporters can ask themselves right now. Buchanan went to the 1996 convention with a great many delegates. But the party bosses yielded nothing in return except symbolic platform language, and they never seriously considered following Buchanan’s “America First” agenda.