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Pauken’s Paleo Moment

A former Texas Republican Party chair looks at the conservative politics that might have been.

By 5.24.10

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Bringing America Home: How America Lost Her Way and How We Can Find Our Way Back
By Tom Pauken
(Chronicles Press, 204 pages, $29.95)

There was a brief period in the 1990s when it looked like the right was going to have a paleo moment. Pat Buchanan barely lost to Bob Dole in Iowa and beat him in New Hampshire. Republican members of Congress were railing against "nation-building" abroad and filing lawsuits to keep Bill Clinton from going to war in the Balkans. And Tom Pauken was the chairman of the Texas Republican Party.

In the following decade, both the Republicans and the conservative movement traveled in a very different direction. There were many reasons for this, of course -- Clinton's presidency came to an end and, with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so did the post-Cold War "peace dividend." But Pauken's rivals in the Texas GOP, George W. Bush and Karl Rove, played a very significant role. Compassionate conservatism replaced government-slashing; soothing rhetoric about faith-based initiatives replaced Buchananesque speeches about the culture war; the "humble foreign policy" of candidate Bush gave way to the president's Bush Doctrine.

Around the same time Rove published his memoir, Tom Pauken -- a Goldwater-era conservative activist who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations -- released his book Bringing America Home, painting a very un-Rovian picture of what the Republican Party and the conservative movement should look like. Pauken might have titled it The Conscience of a Paleoconservative.

The country caught a glimpse of Pauken's vision last week, when Tea Party insurgent Rand Paul triumphed over GOP establishment favorite Trey Grayson in Kentucky's Republican primary for U.S. Senate. That contest pitted economic and social conservatives against national-security hawks who were unmoved by Paul's appeals for smaller government -- and alarmed by his more restrained view of foreign policy. (Though the firestorm over Paul's post-election musings about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a reminder of the foot-in-mouth disease that can afflict paleo politicians.)

Bringing America Home is a call to arms for future Rand Pauls: conservatives who were frustrated by the fact that the federal government did not shrink during the Reagan administration or the Republican Revolution and that it grew under the second Bush presidency. But Pauken's isn't simply a libertarian treatise. He worries about a coarsened, post-Christian culture. He is similarly concerned about the erosion of the U.S. manufacturing base and the bursting of our bubble economy.

And while Pauken is critical of what he describes as "the neoconservative conquest of American foreign policy," unlike Paul's father he does not attribute terrorism against the United States solely to blowback. Pauken acknowledges "militant Islam" and its political ambitions as a threat that can and must be dealt with in a just-war context. "We are engaged in a religious war," he writes, "not because we wish it to be so, but because our enemies have defined it in those terms."

Not all of Pauken's ideas are paleo favorites. The border-adjusted value-added tax, increasingly fashionable among conservatives ranging from heretical author Bruce Bartlett to congressional Republicans' budget point man Paul Ryan, is likely to work better in theory than in practice. The political objections to a tax that falls so heavily on consumers are obvious. Even so, few VAT countries are low-tax-countries, a fact that ought to give opponents of "big-government conservatism" pause.

Pauken remembers how Republicans rode to victory in the '90s backed by a coalition of tax-cutters, government-shrinkers, gun owners, pro-life activists, and Christian home-schoolers. But once the GOP and its conservative backers reached the Promised Land, the federal leviathan looked less repulsive -- bringing to mind an old line about those who denounce Washington as a sewer only to treat it like a hot tub upon their arrival.

Until recently, Pauken's book might have seemed quaint: a nice counterfactual of what might have happened had Buchanan won the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and empowered his paleoconservative brain trust, but not a practical guide to politics going forward. But the age of Obama has made once again made possible a conservatism more interested in social issues and small government than exporting democracy to the Middle East.

At least such right-wingers can once again claim a place at the table -- consider Bill Kristol's qualified defense of Rand Paul during the Civil Rights Act feeding frenzy. Any paleos who wish to take their seats might also consider reading Pauken's book. 

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.