Mainstreaming Ron Paul

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One of the cleverest things Justin Timberlake ever did was bring sexy back. After all, sexy never really went away. But once the song came out, it didn’t matter. People welcomed sexy back with open arms.

Now there’s nothing particularly sexy about the Ron Paul campaign. But just as Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, Ron Paul is bringing the Constitution back even though it never went away. The question becomes: Is that enough to mainstream Ron Paul?

The left finds much to respect in Paul. Anti-cronyism. Anti-adventurism. Kudos from Jon Stewart. This makes right-wing partisans squeamish. But a lot of people — left, right and center — are starting to get a clearer picture of the Texas congressman. His message is more complicated than “hope” and “change.” And yet it is as simple as the Constitution he’s vowed to restore. Ron Paul is like one of those gestalt pictures. If you look at him long enough, you start to see things that should have been obvious before. That’s the power of principles.

In The Sunshine State News, Kevin Dirby quotes evangelical Ken Conner, the former head of the Family Research Council, who had this to say about Paul:

He doesn’t thump his chest or have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. He has a coherent and consistent world view, and his philosophy of government is strikingly simple: He thinks we should be governed by the Constitution. Following the path where his largely libertarian logic takes him, he believes that the ever-burgeoning federal government should be pared back dramatically so that the people and the states can exercise the degree of self-government envisioned by our forefathers. He thinks the U.S. is overextended economically and militarily and has a concrete vision for correcting the problems on both fronts.

This “largely libertarian logic” has made some people call him a kook.

But now that Paul has begun to refine his rhetoric in sticky areas like foreign policy — e.g., from “managing an empire” to “we can’t afford it anymore” (less Chomsky, more Coolidge) — he’s starting to sound not just principled but pragmatic, two qualities Americans really want in a leader.

Ron Paul thinks most partisan pet issues can be devolved to states, communities and individuals. So Paul needn’t take sides on many intractable issues like gay marriage or drug policy. The Constitution doesn’t provide for these. Americans needn’t engage in these titanic tug-o-wars, either. These issues ought to, according to Paul, be left to state legislatures and to an individual’s conscience. Something similar can be said for crafting health insurance schemes or education standards. Fifty experiments. May the best system get copied.

The default position for a lot of people is: if I feel strongly about something, then it ought to be a federal law. Of course there’s a bloc on the other side that feels just as strongly. Paul believes the Constitution was actually designed to cut this Gordian Knot. And guess what? It is. (How quaint.) The result is that people form communities of practice that are more localized. The Founders covered the basics so the states could cover the rest. I know, I know. It sounds like relativism. It’s not. It’s political pluralism of the sort the Founders envisioned.

The United States was chartered to be neither a right-wing theocracy nor a left-wing technocracy. (Weirdly the U.S. has become more of both.) Those inclined towards either of these poles will not bring themselves to vote for Ron Paul. But a bold, new center —- made up of people for whom the Constitution still resonates — is emerging.

As Ron Paul finds his messaging sweet spot, more and more people are coming aboard. Of course, his core supporter base is formidable and determined. But they can also be a liability. Some are downright cultish; others belligerent. (If you want to take a cue on how to behave online, for example, look no further than Paul himself.) Paul the Elder has even made efforts to re-calibrate his speech in the mold of Paul the Younger, to whom messaging comes more naturally. Many Ronulans haven’t picked up on this. But hopefully they’ll come along.

Will it be fast enough?

Young people are getting on the Ron Paul train in droves. And even if Ron Paul doesn’t emerge from the GOP primary the victor, he’s helping to create the next generation of Republicans. These ain’t your mama’s Republicans, either. They are the tea party of toleration. They’re reading their Hayek, their Friedman and their Constitution. They are coalescing around a set of timeless principles. These are decidedly not the errant slogans of modern progressivism, nor the vacuous bromides of 2008. These are the most important ideas the world has ever known — life, liberty, property and limited government — enshrined forever by Jefferson and Madison to serve as a beacon for the world.

Max Borders is a 2011-12 Robert Novak Fellow. He’s writing a book on wealth inequality.

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