Ron Paul's Missed Opportunity

I don't want to nit-pick about Ron Paul's TV appearances. I've noted before that he's becoming much more comfortable speaking off the cuff as his presidential campaign rolls on. But he really missed an opportunity this week on The Colbert Report.

Don't get me wrong. It was a very strong performance. Many a lesser politician has been tripped up by Colbert and made to look like a fool. Paul thrusted and parried with him as well as anyone; his line "I'd rather be free — and alive!" was terrific. But at the end, when Colbert rattled off the names of government agencies and asked Paul to raise his hand if he wants to abolish them, Paul 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 :

[Colbert] did not let Paul get away as easily as fellow liberals Stewart and 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 and stopped him right there: “Yes, I want to abolish the Department of Education. I know that sounds pretty radical, but let me tell you why. 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 the ins and outs of 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 Teddy 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 young liberals an awful lot to stop and think about. This message of devolution (or if you prefer, state's 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 take over the whole country, and conservatives who still retain a memory, however deeply suppressed, of a time not very long ago when they actually had an innate suspicion of centralized power in Washington, D.C.

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 9/11, and have gathered pace again since the spring of 2004, when Abu Ghraib 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. The process can happen acrimoniously, perhaps even violently, as competing factions fight each other to exhaustion and the Empire collapses under its own weight, or peacefully, as the factions come to realize there’s really nothing to fight about when power is decentralized and devolved. Ron Paul can help to bring about that realization – and pick up a lot of support for his campaign, from across the political spectrum, at the same time.

P.S: Note in my hypothetical Ron Paul response the sentence, “I know that sounds pretty radical, but let me tell you why.” He needs to say that a lot as this campaign proceeds. He needs to acknowledge that people might feel uncomfortable with his positions; it will make them more receptive to what he has to say.