Ron Paul’s announcement today that he won’t run for re-election to the House has kick-started the effort to evaluate his place in history. In the Atlantic, Chris Good starts the discussion by giving Paul credit for changing the Republican Party and pushing it closer to the libertarians and vice versa. But let’s not exaggerate Paul’s influence.
Though he has a dedicated and enthusiastic cadre of followers who have used the Internet to good effect, his crowd should not be confused with the broad-based Tea Party movement that emerged in reaction to the stimulus and Obamacare in 2009. There was, and is, some overlap between the dedicated libertarian ideologues and the Tea Partiers, but the latter is more of a traditional, small government, anti-tax revolt while Paul’s intrepid band of supporters represent not only a very different demographic but different views about a host of other issues. The difference between the two is best measured by the distinction between Paul and Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party heroine.
Paul and Bachmann may agree on some issues, but his take on drug laws, gay marriage and other libertarian touchstones is as different from her stands as night and day. The point is that although libertarian thinking within Republican circles did get a boost from Paul’s supporters, it’s unclear whether his influence has been all that profound. Good’s assertion that Paul libertarians have assumed an important role within the GOP is unsubstantiated (other than Paul’s Kentuckian son, Rand, who was elected to the U.S. Senate). Also unsubstantiated is Good’s belief that “without his [Paul’s] public campaign against the federal reserve and government interference in people’s lives, the Tea Party’s small-government flavor wouldn’t be the same.” Tea Party activists and social conservatives, who still make up the grass roots of the Republican Party, may agree with Paul’s suspicion of government, but they do not subscribe to his ideology.
The proof that Good puts forward for this point of view is the drift of the GOP toward an anti-war, neo-isolationist view about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya. This view bears the hallmark of Paul’s hostility to American entanglement in foreign affairs. In particular, he credits Paul’s influence for Mitt Romney’s contradictory positions on Afghanistan. But we have yet to see whether those who hold such views (and it’s far from clear that this list would include Romney) are even close to prevailing in the party. It’s important to note the two GOP candidates who are unabashed opponents of a strong U.S. foreign policy, Paul and Jon Huntsman (and Huntsman does so from a traditional “realist” point of view, rather than as a libertarian), have little chance to win. The surging Bachmann may oppose intervention in Libya, but aside from this foreign policy arena, she appears to be more closely aligned with the conservative mainstream than anything advocated by Paul.
The evaluation of Ron Paul’s place in American political history may need to wait until post-November 2012. If, as Alana speculates, Paul decides to run as an independent next year after losing badly (again) in the Republican primaries, he could have an outsize impact on the general election by siphoning just enough votes away from the GOP candidate to re-elect Barack Obama. If so, instead of changing the Republican Party, his legacy will be ensuring four more years of Democratic rule in Washington.