May 18th, 2007

Why Ron Paul Is Bad for Himself and Good for the GOP

A version of this blog post appeared on TechRepublican.

Here’s the now-infamous exchange (parts of which I’m omitting, signified by ellipses, to get to its essence) among Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), Rudy Giuliani and moderator Wendell Goler, during the most recent debate for the Republican presidential candidates:

Paul: They attack us because we’ve been over there. [For instance,] we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We’ve been in the Middle East. . . .

Goler: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

Paul: I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it. . . .

Giuliani: I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us he didn’t really mean that.

Paul: I believe very sincerely that the C.I.A. is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. . . . If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem. They don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free. They come and they attack us because we’re over there.

For these arguments, many are now clamoring for Ron Paul’s exclusion from future debates. This is not only unhealthy, but also sets a dangerous precedent. (What’s next: baring a Republican who supports gay marriage?)

Dissent—in a debate of all places—invigorates discussion. And since Paul is the only one, out of 10 candidates, to oppose the war, his views merit inclusion.

Of course, not all dissent is worthy. Dissent for dissent’s sake is a waste of time, which is precious with only 90 minutes and 10 people. But dissent that’s grounded in conservative principles (“war is the health of the state“), or even some evidence, deserves a hearing.

Indeed, the idea that the U.S. invited 9/11 is not as radical as one might think. This idea, at least the nuanced, scholarly school of it, does not blame the United States for the attacks, but recognizes that it’s both who we are (“They hate us for our freedom“) and what we do (“We’ve been in the Middle East”) that fans the terrorist flames.

Even if Paul sounds like him, Michael Moore he is not.

But if he’s not a kook, then who is he? Well, some of his ideas are kooky, but the bigger problem is that he’s a poor communicator, who suffers from a rhetorical Napoleon complex. In short, he’s his own worst enemy.

Even a fool realizes that a format where you’re given one minute per question is probably the worst place to articulate perhaps the most controversial thing you could say to an American audience (you have blood on your hands for the deadliest attack on American soil in the nation’s history), especially one of Southern conservatives to whom the war on terror trumps everything. To wit, Paul’s above remarks were unnecessary (yes, he was baited, but he took the bait) and inappropriate (they require far too much time to explain, let alone convince someone of).

Since it’s fair to assume that a 10-term member of Congress is familiar with the cardinal rule of marketing—know your audience—the only explanation I can think of for these follies is that Paul likes controversy. And, to give him his due, as a going-nowhere candidate, he may be right to exploit the P.T. Barnum rule of publicity: all press is good press. If nothing else, his confrontation with Giuliani (it’s playing on YouTube as Ron vs. Rudy) has heightened his profile.

But Paul is seemingly oblivious to the alternative: instead of trying to ride his antiwar bona fides, he should emphasize his domestic agenda.

For example, when asked by both Giuliani and Goler to disabuse those who thought he had just likened Americans to cold-blooded mass murderers, instead of returning to theories of blowback, he might have simply said “No, I am not,” and pivoted back to why the Iraq war is hurting our national security.

What Ron Paul offers are deeply consistent, principled views on what the Constitution authorizes and does not authorize. Among Republicans hungry for a candidate who not only believes but also acts on fiscally conservative principles, this is his unique selling point.

Yet in listening to him, you’d never know this. You’d never know that he has never voted to raise taxes. Or that he has never voted for an unbalanced budget. Or that he has never voted for a federal restriction on gun ownership. Or that he has never voted to raise congressional pay. Why? Because Ron Paul is lousy at self-promotion—when, ironically, he has the most to promote.

So, instead of attacking Giuliani and asking him to apologize, both of which only fuel the perception that he is out of touch, Paul must focus more on himself. He’s already nailed showmanship. Now he needs to master salesmanship.

Addendum (6/1/2007): Finally, Paul declares, “It’s preposterous to say that I’m blaming America. That’s a complete distortion, like blaming a person for being murdered. No, I’m looking at the motives and reasons that elicit such hatred and willingness to kill.”

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