Ron Paul won the debate. Not necessarily the presidential debate that took place this week—but the most important debates now taking place in the Republican Party. Monday night’s event was but the latest example.
Observers who now give former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann high marks for their debate performances are not wrong. Both candidates exhibited well that presidential “style” of so much worth to pundits and voters.
But what about substance? Who best represents the GOP’s current philosophy?
At the second debate of the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, FOX News’ Carl Cameron posed the following question to candidate Paul: “Congressman Paul, yet another question about electability: Do you have any?” The audience laughed as did the other candidates. But Cameron’s condescending question did contain a valid point: What place was there in the 2008 GOP for a limited government, antiwar Republican?
Fast forward: How much room is there in today’s GOP for the Republican model circa 2008? Early 2008 presumed frontrunner Rudy Giuliani garnered much popularity due almost entirely to his aggressive foreign policy. This was true even amongst religious conservatives despite his socially liberal views. Rudy might not have been a constitutionalist, pro-life or pro-gun; but he was pro-war. That was good enough for many conservatives in 2008.
Eventual nominee John McCain had many problems with the conservative base in the last election—not the least of which was his big government record. In McCain’s defense, the Senator’s routine statism wasn’t that much different or offensive than that of President Bush. Luckily for McCain the party agreed and rallied around his “Country First” platform of “100 years” in Iraq and certain war with Iran. Of course, the economic downturn would interrupt McCain’s preferred foreign policy election narrative and America chose a Democrat who promised more jobs and less war.
Try to imagine McCain—whose current passion seems to be cheerleading for Obama’s war in Libya—on this year’s debate stage. It’s now become a conservative consensus that the US intervention in Libya is a bad idea. Candidate Newt Gingrich—a Bush Republican at heart yet deft enough to adapt—was for the Libyan war before he was against it. Populist candidate Herman Cain gave a list of reasons Libya was wrongheaded. Bachmann proudly proclaimed her opposition to the Libyan intervention. Perhaps most amusing was Romney, who said that the US military should not be used to fight for the independence of other nations. This was a complete reversal of his 2008 position when Romney thought that the primary purpose of the US military was to fight for the independence of other nations via his “No Apology” support for the Iraq War.
If the 2008 Republican primaries were based heavily on foreign policy, Monday night’s event did not even broach the subject until 90 minutes into the two hour debate—and there were only two questions from the audience about it. The first was from a Navy veteran with three sons currently serving overseas. The concerned father wanted to know, with Osama Bin Laden now dead, when we would be leaving Afghanistan. The other audience question came from a man who wanted to know how America could afford to have hundreds of bases all over the world considering our debt crisis.
How many 2008 GOP voters were asking when we might be bringing the troops home? How many would have even thought to question America’s global military footprint and tie it to spending? If Bush had intervened in Libya, would these Republican candidates have supported it? In the last election, would Romney have felt compelled to say that our military should be used more cautiously?
The reason foreign policy wasn’t discussed for most of the debate is because the 2012 GOP’s first concern—like much of the country—is the economy. But in 2008, Paul was already warning of the current economic crisis. In fact, Paul’s argument has always been that America is going bankrupt due in large part to an expensive and detrimental foreign policy. The questions related to foreign policy asked Monday were far more sympathetic to Paul’s long held views than that of any other Republican candidate in 2008. The fiscal concerns discussed were a lot closer to what Paul has been talking about for three decades as his fellow and supposedly more “electable” Republicans laughed at such warnings.
Like Bob Dole in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008, most candidates are quickly forgotten not simply because they lost—but because they weren’t philosophers. Their opinions change with the political wind, as evidenced by many of the candidates Monday night.
But who influences which way those winds might blow? The last real philosopher candidates to get the Republicans’ nod—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—had to change their party’s philosophy before winning any nominations or presidencies. This is instructive because it reminds us that changing hearts and minds is just as important—if not more important—than merely winning the next election.
Whether Ron Paul gets the nomination or wins any future debates remains to be seen. Whether he is winning the debate does not.