Ron Paul and the Realignment of Conservatism

A friend of mine (who should be starting his own blog soon enough) invited my comment on the Ron Paul phenomenon.  Specifically, he is interested in the demographics and ideology of Paul supporters, and what they mean for the future of the Grand Ol’ Party.

Evangelicals are not buying Paul’s social conservatism. You’ve got the fiscal conservatives on board with Paul and the social conservatives on board with Santorum, and the people who aren’t so much pro-conservative as they are anti-liberal/anti-Obama on board with Romney… How do you make Paul sufficiently appealing to social conservatives to pull together a majority of voters behind him? He needs to start emulating Santorum a little more, or he’ll never win the nomination.

Perhaps a more concerning proposition: What if the fiscal and social conservatives actually disagree with each other completely? What if older, intensely socially conservative voters are very much pro-Social Security and Medicare?  The Republican primary voters are divided in three, friends, and I’m beginning to wonder whether each faction doesn’t despise the other two.

Final thought on the subject: If Mitt Romney picked Ron Paul for vice president, do you think that that would get Paul’s base fired up, or would it seem to be a “compromise” on his principles?

Ah, faction.  The bane of the American political system, manipulated by the Founding Fathers in order to force the People to form no more than two large, open, national coalitions.  Periodically, however, the system breaks down, no coalition is able to form a majority, and remarkably unpopular political platforms take possession of the nation’s capital.  The ur-example of this is, of course, the election of 1860, when the Democratic Party’s inability to get its act together on the slavery issue led to two Democrats (and one Whig) running against the Republican.  That Republican, a right-wing extremist named Abraham Lincoln, was placed in the White House with not even 40% of the popular vote, and held the unpopular view that, eventually, at some point, slavery really ought to end everywhere in the Union, although he certainly wasn’t going to press the point on the South.  Had the two wings of the Democratic party held together and neutralized the candidate from the rapidly dying Whig party, history would have played out very differently.  The Corwin Amendment would probably be on the books, in some form.

There are signs that realignment is upon us again, and there are more signs that it is not the relatively friendly realignment of the 1970s, when the unions/minorities/pacifist trinity took over the Democratic party and drove their social conservatives into the GOP for the heresy of supporting abortion (leading directly to the election Ronald Reagan, incidentally), nor the internal realignments that gave rise to the Fourth and Fifth Party Systems.  It looks more like the Republican coalition is coming apart at the seams, like when Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay blew up the old consensus Dee-Arr party of the 1820s.  Ron Paul supporters are impassioned, stubborn, and hate a great many longstanding Republican policies.  The punditocracy of the GOP establishment is, by turns, baffled, outraged, conciliatory, and simply insulting toward the Paul camp.  You start to worry that Jamie Fly is going to slug you in your stupid Paulite face, or that Rich Lowry is holding back tears.  Most of them just try to pretend Rep. Paul is a non-factor in Republican politics, because he is only pulling 20% support, which has been stable for years, he is never going to win a state, his Republican supporters will back the nominee, and most of his supporters are Democrats and Obama-leaning independents anyway.

This would be much more true if the GOP would stop insisting that it is.

They are, simply, wrong about the sources of Rep. Paul’s support.  Although he polls overwhelmingly strongly among independent voters, he has consistently finished in the top three among Tea Party supporters and Republicans identifying as Very Conservative.  In Iowa, he was second place in these category to Santorum — and this was when the “Tea Party favorites,” Rep. Bachmann and Gov. Perry were still in the race.  Indeed, although Rep. Paul’s numbers among moderates and liberals were clearly the strongest (40%), it was the Establishment’s favored candidate, Gov. Mitt Romney, who secured an equally conclusive second place (35%).  Gov. Romney’s finish among liberals more than quadrupled the liberal support of his nearest competitor, Sen. Rick Santorum.  What we see is that Paul does not alienate the conservative or liberal extremes of the party.  He alienates its broad middle (something like half the party nationally).  This is extremely dangerous for the GOP down the road.  It means Rep. Paul is rallying supporters along a different axis of political values than the liberal-conservative dichotomy that has held since President Reagan.

Conservative supporters of Rep. Paul then feel understandably slighted by the fact that their own pundits are dismissing them as irrelevant at best and kooky GOP isolationist nationwreckers at worst.  There is no question that the attitude Republican Establishment individuals have taken toward Rep. Paul goes well beyond the usual rough-and-tumble of primary politics; his very legitimacy as a candidate is questioned almost daily.  Every insult and every dismissal makes his conservatives feel less welcome in the Republican party, less like there is a conciliatory middle position to be taken between the Paul camp and (what passes for) the GOP mainstream… and therefore more likely to give up and form a third party.  Super-conservatives and liberal conservatives are idealists — i.e., precisely the people most likely to do a crazy thing like that.

The Republican Party is, without any question, in more institutional danger right now than it has been since the New Deal.  Let it not be said that I whistled while the Big Tent fell in.

That being said, I think the risk of actual coalition failure is not actually that large.  The three “legs” of conservatism are social, fiscal, and foreign policy.

Rep. Paul is universally acknowledged to be the strongest fiscal conservative in conservatism, to the point where people who usually complain the national debt is going to bring about the end of civilization ask him to please quiet down about the radical stuff or the progs’ll catch on that we ultimately think we need to partially rivitize-pay Ocial Security-say — not to mention devolve it to state administration.  He has an excellent budget plan, which he would likely have to enforce by veto because of all the special interests it crushes.  This helps explain his broad appeal: fiscal conservatism is the most broadly appealing plank of the Republican platform (at least in the abstract — but that’s another post).  Have you ever met somebody who identified himself as “fiscally liberal, but socially conservative”?  Who isn’t on a theology faculty, the editorial staff of Sojourners, an ex-Jesuit, or all three?  The breed doesn’t exist.  It was a punchline on 30 Rock a couple years ago.  A punchline for this guy, of all people (NOTE: not the handsome Alec Baldwin).  A strong and idealistic economic policy (which includes monetary reform) pulls in a surprising number of Americans, from the expected Tea Partiers to the less-than-expected college Democrats.  Unfortunately, as my friend observes, it also alienates a number of social conservatives, who talk the talk quite well, but quite often don’t walk the walk, believing obviously false things like “we can balance the budget without adjusting Social Security benefits.”

Rep. Paul’s major problem area is in foreign policy.  There’s no reconciling it: Rep. Paul is absolutely opposed to everything  Republican foreign policy has been about since at least 2003.  Rep. Paul stands well to the left of President Obama, and on about the same ground as Candidate Obama on a number of issues (though not principles).  I would love to go back to the exit polling and demonstrate the problem, but I can’t, because none of the exit polls have asked about foreign policy.  Suffice it to say that, although there is certainly a shift underway in the Republican party away from the enthusiastic neo-conservative nation-building of the 2000s, Rep. Paul’s foreign policy still makes him anathema to a slim majority of conservatives.  I believe, contra Mr. Riehm, that it is primarily (and perhaps exclusively) foreign policy, not social policy, that is preventing Rep. Paul from picking up a much larger swath of the conservative vote.  It is also a strong source of appeal for him among young liberals.

On social policy, Rep. Paul stands in a weird twilight zone.  He is arguably the strongest social conservative in the race, supporting strong devolution of federal powers and the most superb anti-abortion record in Congress (with apologies to Sen. Santorum, who runs a close second in the pro-life olympics).  He’s Christian, loves marriage, and understands what’s wrong with the culture — while recognizing that law can’t fix it.  He is nevertheless frequently branded as “the candidate who wants to legalize heroin and would let the states keep killing babies.”  As social conservatives continue to be exposed to good arguments for demilitarizing the drug war, and continue to learn what Rep. Paul’s actual positions are rather than the bizarre caricatures they’ve picked up by impression over the years.  They will come around to Rep. Paul in time, because Rep. Paul agrees with them on nearly everything they claim to stand for.  He’s certainly a much better social conservative than Sen. McCain — or Gov. Romney — or even Gov. Perry.  The voters are moving slowly because they are conservatives.  It comes with the territory.  They are realizing what the Paul candidacy offers them in greater numbers every day, and listing him — at the least — as their second choice.  The only major roadblock is the Federal Marriage Amendment many social conservatives insist on passing, but, when Santorum drops out, they will back the good pro-lifer, whatever his beliefs about Medicare.  I am not worried about the Evangelical social conservatives.  They only worry me when they prove in conversation that they are actually neo-conservatives first and social conservatives second.  Indeed, your average Evangelical social conservative is already war-weary and suspicious of the Republican foreign policy establishment, starting to listen (perhaps belatedly) to the instructions of the Popes, and is more than ready to jump ship if allowed to preserve his dignity in so doing.  (I confess, the converse is less likely — but the number of social liberals listening to Rep. Paul in various ways is heartening.)

So the real question is: as the Paul case continues to erode support for the Republican foreign policy consensus — as support continues to build for a period of pullback, re-evaluation of American military interests, and a return to the Constitutional contemplation of war-making powers — will foreign policy conservatives go peacefully, or split the party?  I am not sure.  Rep. Paul has been nearly as insulting to them as them to him, at times, and his supporters have been considerably worse.  Meanwhile, a solid third of loyal party members have suggested they would sooner re-elect President Obama than allow Rep. Paul to win.  These certainly aren’t economic conservatives, who have nothing to fear from Paul and they’re not likely to be social conservatives, either — social conservatives are used to settling for the candidate the party picks, and, to be sure, Paul would be the best social conservative pick since Lincoln.

Foreign policy conservatives, however, have had their way in the party for thirty years.  Their vision of global neo-conservatism is withering, despite the tacit support of President Obama.  Some of their proposals are actually shocking to the ears of a 2012 voter — Gov. Perry’s “we need to re-occupy Iraq” comes to mind.  Yet they have always had their way.  They have had it for so long that they can no longer conceive of a Republican party that does not support indefinite detention and preemptive war. Yet they are losing their grip. It reminds me of a sequence from an old Star Trek episode. (go to 19:22).  The future of the American foreign policy is in the vicinity of Ron Paul’s conservatism, it seems to me.  We are no longer going to prosecute extended foreign occupations.  We are no longer going to have bases all over the world.  Our military is going to remain the largest in the world, but perhaps it will be largest than its nearest competitor (China and the United Kingdom in a near-tie) by a factor of five, not the current factor of ten.  Whether Republicans ride this change in sentiment to successful reclamation of economic conservatism, a humanistic social policy, and the Constitution — or into the political wilderness — is not up to Rep. Paul.  Ron Paul did not start this groundswell; the political wave has merely come his way after thirty years of his own in the wilderness.   The party’s future is up to the neo-conservatives, and whether they are able to rethink one leg of conservatism for the sake of the other two.

I’m not saying they should or shouldn’t.  People of integrity stand by their positions even as they become unpopular.  I’m just predicting the consequences either way.

Naming Mr. Paul a vice presidential candidate would be a great step in the direction of conciliation.  It is difficult to imagine that step coming from any of the current frontrunners, and it is difficult to imagine them making their platform compatible enough with Rep. Paul’s to form a plausible ticket.  That is one more reason to worry.

I suppose the bottom line of this absurdly long, pompous, and windbaggy first post is: I don’t know what happens next.  I just very strongly believe that Paul’s problem is not with social conservatives, who either appreciate his views, disagree modestly with his views (especially on marriage), or aren’t very familiar with his views.  Paul has appeal to them; they just haven’t caught on yet, especially with their old warhorse Santorum still in the battle.  The person who would vote for, say, Newt Gingrich over Ron Paul is actually not a serious social conservative at all.  (Example: apparently, the entire state of South Carolina.)  It’s foreign policy that has been at the heart of the battle between Paulites and the rest of the party, and it’s going to stay at the center of that battle long after Rep. Paul himself departs the national stage after the convention this year.

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