On the same day Ron Paul won the presidential straw poll of the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists, one of the nation’s oldest conservative-libertarian activist groups kicked him off their national advisory board. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) announced it had severed ties with the twelve-term Texas congressman, who had been on the advisory board for over two decades, over what it described as his “delusional and disturbing alliance with the fringe Anti-War movement.”
Later, Paul triumphed at the at Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll for the second year in a row. He beat Mitt Romney, the only other candidate with an experienced campaign organization, 30 percent to 23 percent. Paul left the other possible Republican presidential contenders who are favored by either the mainstream media or the conservative movement — most of whom got fewer votes than libertarian fellow-traveler and former Paul endorser Gary Johnson — in the dust.
While some individual participants may have been out of the mainstream, CPAC as a whole was hardly fringe. It attracted over 11,000 people, mostly mainline conservative activists. Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, and Rick Santorum were among the other possible Republican candidates on hand. This wasn’t, as some of the conference’s conservative detractors imply, a joint meeting of the Log Cabin Club and the Libertarian National Committee.
Straw polls aren’t scientific surveys and thus can’t be used to refute Donald Trump’s CPAC prediction that Paul has “zero chance” of winning the presidency. But it is a good barometer that at this very early stage the other 2012 aspirants lack either grassroots support or organizational strength — and in some cases, probably both — at least in sufficient amounts to overcome Paul’s zealous backers.
The straw poll win coupled with the YAF flap shows the dilemma for the movement Paul is trying to lead. On the one hand, it was once unusual to hear Republican leaders not named Ron Paul talking regularly about the Constitution. Now it is commonplace, and not a single Republican contemplating the presidency defends the constitutionality of Obamacare. There is much more mainstream conservative interest in auditing the Federal Reserve, the doctrine of enumerated powers, nullification, and Austrian economics. But deep divisions still remain.
Even at CPAC, there was little obvious comity between Paul’s supporters and those who preferred other candidates. About half the crowd booed when the straw poll results were announced. All hell broke loose when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld appeared with the audience still full of Paulites who had been there to hear the congressman’s son Rand, now a freshman Republican senator from Kentucky, speak. They heckled the former vice president and defense secretary. The more traditional Republicans and movement conservatives on hand responded by shouting, “USA, USA!”
One side believed Cheney should present and Rumsfeld should receive an award for defending the Constitution, while the other thought they had a record of undermining it. The Paul supporters at CPAC branded these men “war criminals” while YAF declared that opposing their preferred foreign policy “border[s] on treason.” What common ground can there be between these two extremes?
“Paul’s supporters have all the lungs and confidence of fourth-century Christians overwhelming the pagans,” writes professional Paul-watcher Dave Weigel. But this can sometimes backfire. When they attempted to shout down Orrin Hatch as he explained his support for the bailout, they won him sympathy from the rest of the crowd — even though most rank-and-file conservatives agree with Paul and disagree with Hatch on the issue.
Yet Rand Paul struck a much different tone. He unapologetically made common cause with the Tea Party: “Is there anybody here from the Tea Party? Are we going to let Washington co-opt the Tea Party? Will you help me fight for and defend the Constitution?”
The younger Paul also invoked Barry Goldwater in reminding the audience that strict constitutionalism was part of the conservative movement’s heritage. He cited the following from Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative: “I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible.”
Of course, Rand Paul’s father also favorably quotes conservative and Republican leaders of days gone by in his speeches, from Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan. But the son made common cause with his GOP contemporaries as well. Just as he has cosponsored legislation with Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, the younger Paul enlisted Oklahoma conservative Tom Coburn in his speech. He even gave a shout out to Maine’s moderate Susan Collins. Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats were cast as villains.
While Ron Paul challenged the CPAC crowd by saying that he bet half of them wouldn’t support cuts in the defense budget, Rand Paul led with entitlement reform, asking to applause, “Is there anybody here who would like to opt out of Social Security?” Then he emphasized the significance of national defense, calling it “the one primary and most important constitutional thing our government does.” But he also referred to Pentagon cuts as the “one compromise we will have to make as conservatives.”
Rand also put himself convincingly to the right of the Republican leadership. “They’re talking about cutting $35 billion,” he said. “We spend $35 billion in five days. We add $35 billion to the debt in nine days. It’s not enough, and we will not stop the ruin in our country unless we think more boldly.” Just as Reagan once called for a platform painted in “bold colors, not pale pastels.”
When it comes to the substance of his positions on the Patriot Act, the Iraq war, and foreign aid to Israel, Rand Paul is still his father’s son. But just as in his CPAC speech, he is trying to speak in tones less jarring to Republican ears, bringing his father’s supporters and more traditional conservatives together.
Both the conservative movement and Republican Party have seen this before, as conservative Christians sat uneasily alongside Republican regulars in GOP precincts. Despite an early ruffling of feathers, the party eventually integrated the religious right. While white evangelicals constitute a larger social base than libertarian-oriented right-wingers — the former accounted for a third of George W. Bush’s popular vote in 2004 — Ron Paul’s popular vote total in 2008 wasn’t much different from Pat Robertson’s in 1988.
A prominent conservative activist once told me that the Paulites would succeed only once someone was able to play Ralph Reed to Ron Paul’s Pat Robertson. Reed’s problems aside, it is obvious why some would be skeptical: despite their gain in power, social conservatives know the average Republican politician’s commitment to their issues is so tenuous that they must worry about groups as marginal as GOProud overtaking them in the movement.
But if the Pauls’ supporters have greater ambitions than winning a convention straw poll — like gaining influence in a party or movement and governing the country — they might want to consider Rand’s rebranding of his father’s message.