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GOP Can Learn from Ron Paul

By Kimberley Strassel

Ron Paul is no compassionate conservative. His supporters love him for it.

If there's been a phenomenon in this Republican presidential race, it's been the strength of a fiery doctor from Texas and his message of limited government. As the GOP front-runners address crowds of dispirited primary voters, Mr. Paul has been tearing across the country, leaving a trail of passionate devotees in his wake.

Paul rallies heave with voters waving placards and shouting "Liberty! Liberty!" Money is pouring in from tens of thousands of individual donors--so much cash that the 10-term congressman recently admitted he wasn't sure he could spend it all. A fund-raising event on Guy Fawkes Day (in tribute to Mr. Paul's rebel persona) netted his campaign $4 million, the biggest one-day haul of any GOP candidate, ever. He continues to inch up in the early primary polls, and even bests Fred Thompson in New Hampshire.

Mr. Paul isn't going to be president. He trails in national polls, in no small part because his lack of a proactive foreign policy makes him an unserious candidate in today's terror world. But his success still holds lessons for the leading Republican candidates, as well as those pundits falling for the argument that the future of the GOP rests in a "heroic conservatism" that embraces big government. Mr. Paul shows that the way to many Republican voters' hearts is still through a spirited belief in lower taxes and smaller government, with more state and individual rights.

It helps, too, if voters know you mean it. In nearly 20 years in the House, Mr. Paul can boast he never voted for a tax hike. Nicknamed "Dr. No," he spent much of the time Republicans held a majority voting against his own party, on the grounds that the legislation his colleagues were trying to pass--Sarbanes-Oxley, new auto mileage standards, a ban on Internet gambling--wasn't expressly authorized by the Constitution. He returns a portion of his annual congressional budget to the U.S. Treasury--on principle.

On the stump, Mr. Paul whips up crowds with his libertarian talk of "less taxation, less regulation, a better economic system." While Mitt Romney explains his support of No Child Left Behind, Mr. Paul gets standing ovations by promising to eliminate the Department of Education. Rudy Giuliani toys with reducing marginal rates; Mr. Paul gets whoops with his dream to ax the income tax (and by extension the IRS). Mike Huckabee lectures on the need for more government-subsidized clean energy; Mr. Paul brings cheers with his motto that environmental problems are best solved with stronger property rights. His rhetoric is based on first principles--carefully connecting his policies to the goals of liberty and freedom--and it fires up the base.

Yes, the Paul campaign--with its call to bring the troops home--is also profiting as the one landing pad in the GOP race for those Republicans and independents unhappy with the Iraq war. Mr. Paul's insistence that he isn't an "isolationist" so much as a "non-interventionist" who rejects nation-building has also won him voters who might otherwise have been wary of his passive foreign policy.

Still, it's Mr. Paul's small-government message that has defined him over the years, winning him election after election in Texas--well before Iraq was a question. His appeal has only grown, too, over seven years of a Bush presidency that has moved the party away from its limited-government roots.

"Compassionate conservatism" was a smart move on George W. Bush's part, maybe even necessary to win. The GOP was dogged by a reputation as the heartless party, amplified by the 1995 government shutdown and the clunky Dole campaign. And it had learned from the success of welfare reform that message matters. Many Republican voters believed Mr. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was just that: a way of selling conservative reforms. Tax cuts would help the working poor. Vouchers would help minority kids. Charities would fare better getting people off drugs than government bureaucrats.

Mr. Bush got his tax cuts, but voters found out too late that he was no small-government believer. School vouchers were traded away for more education dollars. A new Medicare drug entitlement has added trillions to the burden on future taxpayers. Government-directed energy policy is larded with handouts to political patrons in the corn and ethanol lobbies. A lack of budget discipline encouraged a Republican Congress to go spend-crazy, stuffing bills with porky earmarks. Much of this was simply a Republican majority that had lost its way. But at least some of it was promoted by Bush advisers who specifically argued that "compassionate conservatism" was in fact a license to embrace government--so long as government was promoting Republican ideals.

That idea has become even more vogue, with a wing of the party now arguing that the small-government libertarianism that has defined the Republican Party since Goldwater is not only immoral, but an election-loser. Former Bush speechwriter Michael's Gerson's new book, "Heroic Conservatism," calls on Republicans to give in to big government and co-opt the tools of state for their own purposes. "If Republicans run in future elections with a simplistic, anti-government message, ignoring the poor, the addicted, and children at risk, they will lose, and they will deserve to lose," he writes. Then again, Republicans have already been losing, and losing big, in no small part because they've taken Mr. Gerson's advice.

The men vying to lead the Republican Party might instead make a study of Mr. Paul. One shame of this race is that for all the enthusiasm the Texan has generated among voters, he hasn't managed to pressure the front-runners toward his positions. His more kooky views (say, his belief in a conspiracy to create a "North American Union") and his violent antiwar talk have allowed the other aspirants to dismiss him.

They shouldn't dismiss the passion he's tapped. If Mr. Paul has shown anything, it's that many conservative voters continue to doubt there's anything "heroic" or "compassionate" in a ballooning government that sucks up their dollars to aid a dysfunctional state. When Mr. Paul gracefully exits this race, his followers will be looking for an alternative to take up that cause. Any takers?

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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