Republicans face two likely paths for their party's future: Ron Paul's libertarianism or a more moderate base
Ron Paul doesn't like to go to New York. No surprise, really. The city of Mayor Bloomberg, with its limitations on how much carbonated sugar citizens are allowed to pour down their own throats is bad enough. That a drone was reportedly spotted by Italian airline pilots this past week, hovering over the city, probably doesn't add to its charm for a guy like Paul. But he seemed to like Ottawa.
Only 48 hours after his son, Senator Rand Paul, wrapped up his 13-hour filibuster on the potential threat to civil liberties by way of aerial drone assassination, his father Ron was in the capital city to the north, telling Canadian conservatives that a transformative time is upon us. We are moving away from "interventionism", he said, and toward a new kind of societal dismantling, thanks to rampant debt and government overspending.
It was a familiar message for anyone who watched the Republican primary debates in the run-up to last year's election. It's happens to be a message with a particularly contrarian tone in a place like this, what with Canada's reputation for social programs and safety nets. The speech also exposed the fraying, existential nerve of the Republican party that Rand Paul danced on for most of Wednesday: is the party in need of a transformation?
For Ron Paul, it seems it is. The outlook for the GOP is "dismal", as he put it to me after delivering his speech to the annual Manning Centre Networking Conference. (It's not a new line from him – it's the same thing he recently told a crowd at the George Washington University.) Republicans, he said Friday:
"Haven't come to grips with some of these issues. They've been too tolerant of abuse of civil liberties, too tolerant of a military industrial complex, of spending money … and they have to attract young people."
Ron Paul's assessment of the GOP might not have much resonance if it weren't for the line of Republican senators who supported Rand Paul's filibuster – a group that included the current heir apparent to the Republican leadership in the post-2012 world, Marco Rubio. That's probably what concerned Senator John McCain, who later painted Rand's filibuster as an amateurish depiction of non-reality, designed only to rabble-rouse "impressionable libertarian" college kids.
The fascinating thing about Paul's relative success during the GOP primaries was his popularity with the exact crowd that McCain derided: college-age students who liked Paul's version of the truth – one backed up by a deep archive of lo-fi web videos breaking down why the central banking system should be dismantled, and that collectively constructs a sort of apocalyptic narrative that gives weight to Paul's message that a new era is on just the other side of some evolving revolution. Over and over you can find these go-it-alone, minimal-government missives littered around the internet (a medium that, ironically, exists in part due to big federal institutions, like the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation).
But it's perhaps no wonder McCain and Graham are worried. Conventional wisdom would suggest that an overall message of moderation in any form, rather than extremism, that would help the GOP attract some of the voters who gave Obama's Democrats two victories now. This is not only the route guys like Rubio were expected to follow, but it's also one that assumes the existing political framework remains intact. It's about rebuilding from where Republicans currently stand.
For Ron Paul, none of that matters. The party is basically irrelevant, because it operates within a broken system. Everything that he said was wrong with Republicans is also what he feels to be wrong with US democracy as a whole. Paul said Friday that McCain's (and Senator Lindsey Graham's) response to the filibuster was "very risky."
There is a risk in keeping the GOP as it is, of course. It may become a perpetual loser. But shifting it ever further into a Ron Paul-like state could be equally problematic, opening it up to the same paradox he gives to society at large: that in order to improve itself, it should do more and more of the things that will eventually lead to its destruction.