This weekend, I attended and spoke at the Second Amendment Foundation’s annual Gun Rights Policy Conference, which was held at a convention center in northern Kentucky, a few miles away from Cincinnati. What I saw and heard there changed my mind about the viability of Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy; Paul is going to far outperform the expectations laid out for him.
First, for some background: twenty years ago, the Second Amendment Foundation (the second-largest pro-Second Amendment group in the U.S.) began sponsoring an annual Gun Rights Policy Conference, in conjunction with other pro-gun groups, including the NRA. For a full working day on Saturday, and half a day on Sunday, the conference features 10-15 minute speeches by writers, radio hosts, group leaders, and other pro-2d Amendment activists.’’
This year, the audience was the biggest ever. At the first conference I attended, in Dallas in 1988, Ron Paul gave a speech on behalf of his Libertarian Party presidential candidacy. I had liked Paul ever since I had met him in 1981, when Paul gave a thoughtful speech to a group of several dozen interns at which I was present (at the time, I was a congressional intern for Pat Schroeder). I voted for Paul in 1988, and in light of the performance of President George H. W. Bush, I’m glad I did.
Last Saturday night, at the buffet dinner and reception, the speaker was Ron Paul. The difference between Paul as a speaker in 1988 and in 2007 was startling. In 1988, he was perfectly competent. This time he was electrifying. In 1988, his campaign could do little more than leave some literature on a table. This time, he had volunteers to hand out literature, including (for the recipient audience) devastating material on Romney and Thompson. (Included among the materials distributed were Romney’s gubernatorial signing statement of the Massachusetts ban on so-called ““assault weapons,”“ and a copy of Sen. Russ Feingold’s letter to Senator Thompson after the passage of McCain-Feingold, with Feingold’s handwritten thanks, claiming that the bill never could have passed without Thompson’s help.)
Most impressive, however, was the large crowd of young people who showed up to hear Paul’s speech. They were enthused and energized, many of them sporting Ron Paul Revolution t-shirts. (The shirts are very clever, since they use “Revolution” to also say ““LOVE”,” which makes revolution seem a lot nicer.)
I did a lot of work in the Gary Hart campaign in 1983-84, while I was at the University of Michigan’s Law School. In terms of support from young volunteers, Paul is miles ahead of where Hart was before the Iowa caucus. After Hart finished second in Iowa, and then won New Hampshire, his campaign attracted a huge number of students, but not before. Paul, on the other hand, has what appears to be a staunch contingent of young supporters already.
The volunteers loved Paul’s speech, of course, and so did the large majority of the rest of the GRPC crowd. The GRPC activists are very wary of politicians whose pro-gun positions are a matter of convenience or calculation, rather than sincere dedication to the Constitution. The top tier of the Republican field obviously has a problem with candidates whose 2007 positions on guns or other issues are inconsistent with some of their past actions. You have to get down to Mike Huckabee before you can find a candidate who doesn’t have a consistency problem. (Huckabee’s record on the Second Amendment is perfect, and his statements clearly prove that he understands and believes in the issue, and isn’t just reciting platitudes and talking points.)
The people who have been looking for “the Constitution-in-exile movement” can stop searching for the non-existent secret headquarters in The Federalist Society’s offices. Instead, they can just drop in on a Ron Paul rally. Paul’s goal is to restore the Constitution to full strength. Ronald Reagan aimed to undo or temper some of aspects of the Great Society and the New Deal. Paul aims for much more, to demolish the corporate state that was built in the early 20th century and was entrenched by Woodrow Wilson during World War One.
His message contains nothing that is different from that which he’s been saying since he was first elected to Congress in 1976, or that which you can hear every four years from the Libertarian presidential candidate. However, this time the message comes with a serious national field operation. (Run by Dennis Fusaro, who formerly was state legislative director of Gun Owners of America, and knows a lot about how to leverage a group of dedicated and highly ideological activists.) With five million dollars raised in 3Q 2007, it appears that Paul’s message is catching on.
In the handful of campaigns that raised more money in the third quarter, some of the donors were engaging in “pay to play”–raising money from their business contacts in order to buy “access” and influence in case the candidate wins. One can be assured, however, that nobody is giving money to Ron Paul in order to buy 2009 “access” to the Executive Branch. They’re giving money because they want to eliminate about 90-percent of the federal government’s cash and regulatory boodle for rent-seekers.
Undoubtedly Paul is being helped by the Iraq issue, since he is the only Republican candidate who advocates withdrawal. But it would be a mistake to characterize his campaign as single-issue in the sense of George McGovern’s in 1972 or Tom Tancredo’s today. Some of Paul’s fans disagree with him on the Iraq question, but like him enough on other issues to support him overall. His supporters span a broad ideological spectrum, because they can find common ground in our Constitution’s rights and freedoms. How many other Republican candidates are getting Democrats to re-register as Republicans so they can participate in the Republican primaries?
The Republican Revolution of 1994 promised substantial shrinkage of a bloated federal government. The Republicans who were swept into Congress in 1946 had promised the same thing, and they delivered a great deal. The 1994 Republicans delivered much less, were out-maneuvered by President Clinton, and eventually became part of the problem.
But deep down there’s still a hunger among much of the Republican base for someone who will shrink the Leviathan, rather than merely attempt to use it for conservative ends.
Like the Ronald Reagan message (and unlike the Pat Buchanan message), the Ron Paul message is fundamentally positive. There may be some anger about the depredations of huge and aggressive government, but the campaign’s theme is “Hope for America” and its premise is that the American people are good people who can achieve the best for themselves, their families, their community, and their nation when the federal government gets out of the way and stops behaving like a helicopter mother.
As with Bill Richardson (my favorite Democratic candidate), I strongly disagree with Paul’s approach to the Iraq War. But I’m thrilled that a candidate with such a strong pro-constitution vision is doing so well.
Is Paul still a longshot? Yes, but so were George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Gary Hart. It is true that Republicans have, for over half a century, nominated whoever was leading in the first Gallup poll after Labor Day. But the past doesn’t control the future. Until 2000, for instance, no-one who had lost the New Hampshire primary had ever won the general election.
Polls show that about quarter of Americans are libertarians, in a general sense, so Paul has lots of room for growth. If he can keep raising enough money to get his message out, then with some strong finishes in the early states, he will start getting earned media. And beyond that, Ronald Reagan is among the many candidates who have proven that many voters will support someone even if they disagree with him on many issues, if they respect his integrity and find hope in his optimistic vision.