Ron Paul’s Missed Opportunity

Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign has reached a turning point. What he does in the next few weeks will determine whether his national profile will continue to grow and the principles of liberty continue to spread or if he becomes a mere curiosity, a footnote to the campaign, a question on Jeopardy! a few years down the line.

He’s made a splash in the first three Republican debates, which he’s parlayed into a booming online presence, along with interviews on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. He’s made inroads in more traditional media, being interviewed by each of the national cable news channels and meriting a Page 1 profile in The Washington Post. He’s generated tremendous buzz as the most principled opponent of the Iraq war among both of the major parties’ candidates.

But soon, that alone won’t be enough. It’s time to move to the proverbial “next level.” It’s time he starts effectively selling the message of liberty to people who are unfamiliar with it. Paul had a unique opportunity to do so last week on The Colbert Report, and he missed it.

Credit Where Credit’s Due

Let me give Paul credit. He has climbed a steep learning curve with the art of extemporaneous speaking in a remarkably short amount of time. During the first debate, he made several cringe-worthy statements, moments when I wished with all my might that he’d made his point a little differently, less awkwardly. It’s one thing to deliver a prepared speech on the floor of the House, something Paul has done very well for decades. It’s another thing to speak off the cuff on a regular basis, and it showed in Paul’s early performances.

Granted, the current president is not, shall we say, the most able ad-libber, but by God, when someone actually gets the rare chance to express the principles of liberty on national TV, you expect him to articulate them better than you would yourself.

Or at least I do. Perhaps I have higher standards than most, after spending a career in journalism, where I’ve become accustomed to silver-tongued, media-savvy politicians blowing smoke with grace and aplomb. I endured a 20-year span of spin that culminated in watching the meteoric rise of that consummate BS artist Barack Obama while working at a TV station in his home base of Chicago.

But Paul’s been a quick study. With each debate and each interview, he’s become more comfortable in his own skin, and by the time of the third GOP debate, I found myself cheering for him probably three times as often as he made me wince.

Which brings me to the Colbert appearance. Now, don’t get me wrong. His performance was very strong. Many a lesser politician has been tripped up by Colbert and made to look like a fool. Paul thrust and parried with him as well as anyone. When Colbert, in his right-wing persona, told Paul, “I’d rather be alive than free and dead,” Paul had a terrific comeback: “I’d rather be free and alive!” That really hit home with an audience that feels the Bill of Rights has been all but repealed by the current administration, and that senses intuitively that liberty need not be exchanged for security. Paul validated that intuition and brought it to a conscious level. Fabulous.

Turning the Curious Into Converts

The missed opportunity came at the end of the interview. Colbert rattled off the names of about a dozen government agencies and asked Paul to raise his hand each time if he wants to abolish them. Paul obliged each and every time. Which is fine as far as it goes. But he missed a chance to turn the curious into converts. I suspect the reaction from many viewers was similar to that of the leftist blogger Manila Ryce:

“[Stephen Colbert] did not let Paul get away as easily as fellow liberals [Jon] Stewart and [Bill] Maher have. Instead, he pointed out the differences between Paul’s far-right ideology and that held by the left. Stephen’s audience obviously wanted to cheer for Paul, but seemed thoroughly confused after they realized that the enemy of your enemy isn’t always your friend.”

Colbert’s list started with the Department of Education. Paul could have raised his hand, stopped him right there, and said: “Yes, I want to abolish the Department of Education. I know that sounds pretty radical, but let me tell you why.”

That last sentence is crucial to the success of Paul’s campaign going forward. He can’t say it often enough to preface unorthodox views that will be unfamiliar to liberals — and for that matter, many younger conservatives with little memory of Ronald Reagan’s small-government rhetoric. Without compromising his principles (as I’m sure he never would), Paul must nonetheless acknowledge that his views might make people a bit uncomfortable; that basic expression of empathy alone will make them much more receptive to what he has to say.

And what he could have proceeded to say was something like this:

“You know, there was once a time when most Republicans wanted to abolish the Department of Education. But a funny thing happened. When Republicans won political power, they realized, ‘Hey, we can use this Department of Education to push our own agenda on the rest of the country.’ And that’s why you have these endless fights now over how our kids are supposed to be educated, Republicans and Democrats each wanting to impose a one-size-fits-all solution on the entire nation. It’s crazy. If they want to teach creationism in Oklahoma, fine, let them. If they want to teach condom use in New York City, that’s fine too. Why should this all be imposed from Washington, D.C.? You know, there isn’t one word in the Constitution about education, and that’s because the Founders knew that education was something best left to states and communities and parents and teachers. But what do we have now? We have this crazy No Child Left Behind law where every kid in the nation is getting drilled in how to pass standardized tests and they’re not actually learning anything. And don’t forget, that law is the brainchild of Ted Kennedy every bit as much as it is of George W. Bush.”

At that point, the allotted time for the interview would have been over, and Paul would have given Colbert’s audience an awful lot to stop and think about. This message of devolution (or if you prefer, states’ rights) is central to Paul’s brand of libertarianism, and it could really resonate with liberals who feel as if Christian fundamentalists are trying to impose Taliban-like rule nationwide and conservatives who still retain a memory, however deeply suppressed, of a time not very long ago when they had an innate suspicion of centralized power in Washington, D.C.

A Nation Divided

The fixation on a one-size-fits-all template has seized hold of both liberals and conservatives in nearly every matter of “public policy,” and the resulting free-for-all has left the America of 2007 a deeply divided country. The divisions began with the ascendance of political Christianity in the ’80s, gathered pace during Clinton’s polarizing presidency in the ’90s, reached a crescendo with the 2000 Florida recount, took a breather after Sept. 11, and have gathered pace again since the spring of 2004, when the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison and the slaughter of the four U.S. contractors in Fallujah began turning large numbers of Americans against the Iraq war.

Amid all these divisions, Ron Paul could bring a message of healing — not a message of unity: The country is beyond unity at this stage of its history — and no amount of Barack Obama platitudes will change that, but a message of healing nonetheless — a message that it’s OK for diverse peoples and communities to have different values, to make different choices, to live and let live.

Chances are that’s what America is going to look like in a couple of decades anyway. If nascent secession movements in Vermont, Hawaii, and elsewhere don’t come to fruition, those states and all the rest will nonetheless have much more autonomy as, in time, power devolves from Washington. In all likelihood, the process will come about acrimoniously, perhaps even violently, as competing factions fight each other to exhaustion and our bloated domestic bureaucracy and overseas empire collapse under their own weight. But what if the process came about peacefully, as the factions come to realize as the Founders did that there’s relatively little to fight about when political power is decentralized? Ron Paul can help to bring about that realization, start changing the national dialogue and at the same time, build additional support for his presidential campaign from across the political spectrum.

Dave Gonigam

June 21, 2007