By popular demand, I’ll weigh in on Ron Paul’s CPAC speech (I’ve discussed it previously here). Paul was very well received by the crowd. Partly, that’s because large numbers of his own supporters — the Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty — were there. But he was also applauded by many of the same mainstream conservatives who would later stomp and cheer for Mitt Romney. The crowd was less stacked with Paulites than during his 2008 CPAC speech and the Paulities that were there looked much more like regular CPAC-goers than the more colorful types who came to hear Paul last year.
What gives? It isn’t so much that Ron Paul’s foreign-policy views have become more popular among conservatives, though they certainly do have a following. If anything, the surge has made most conservatives more convinced of the rightness of the Iraq mission than they were in 2006. Maybe humanitarian interventions or a muddled Afghan operation under Obama will make noninterventionism more popular on the right; maybe, given problems that could arise in Iran and elsewhere, it won’t become more popular. But foreign policy has receded as an issue given the financial meltdown, the bailouts and stimulus packages, and Obama’s agenda of government growth. Here is the area where Paul has the most to say to a Republican audience.
Paul didn’t flinch from criticizing the Republicans’ Bush-era record on spending and expanding the federal government, but much of that has become conservative conventional wisdom. Yet Paul also hit the Democrats hard, saying they’ll “make us look like pikers” and strongly opposing their new spending. His Austrian economic views offer a counter-narrative to the liberal lament that the market is to blame for the bad economy, one that is getting more of a hearing in mainstream conservative circles.
Paul had to be pleased to tie the 2008 vice-presidential nominee in the CPAC straw poll, finishing third with 13 percent of the vote, seven points behind the winner. A question for 2012 is whether he will be the candidate of free markets, sound money, fiscal discipline, cutting the federal budget back down to constitutional size, and limited government at home and abroad or whether another more mainstream candidate will pick up the mantle. Like Mark Sanford, perhaps.