With Ron Paul for the moment topping polls in Iowa the Republican Party is moving into full freakout mode. Unfortunately the GOP panic over Paul is about a decade too late and entirely misdirected. Despite the brief surge, Paul has no more chance of winning the Republican nomination than you do (excluding you, Mitt). Paul isn’t likely to be the nominee, but that should not offer Republicans any comfort.
The Presidency isn’t the only prize in politics. In the measures that really matter Ron Paul is probably already the winner of this year’s race. By patiently accumulating power he has built a political block that will influence policy regardless of who wins the White House in 2012.
By any conventional yardstick Paul is a failed politician. Sure, he served twelve terms in the House, but that achievement leaves him trailing such towering figures as Dante Fascell (19 terms), Ralph Regula (18 terms) and dozens of other people you’ve never heard of. His legislative agenda is an almost universal failure. Every one of his campaigns for higher office has ended in defeat. Superficially, Paul has lost every battle he’s fought and yet he is probably the most successful political figure of our generation.
Paul has done what John McCain, in the wake of his failed 2000 nominating campaign, declined to do – transform himself into the focus of a wider political movement. Each of Paul’s failed campaigns has been a tool to refine his organization, gain new precinct chairs and convention delegates, and eat away at the old Reaganite policy establishment issue by issue, plank by plank.
Despite his reputation for uncompromising politics, Paul has steadily polished his appeal over the years. He has distanced himself from the hard-edged racism of his ‘80’s-era Confederate Libertarianism, though he has remained understandably popular among the extreme racist fringe. He has tempered his stances to shape a modern Neo-Confederate movement more acceptable to the critical block of religious fundamentalists.
This emerging coalition, best seen in the success of his son Rand, has become the intellectual heart of the Tea Party Movement. While John McCain played the game by its conventional rules, molding himself into the shape of a candidate who could win an election, Paul has instead molded himself into a candidate who can determine policy. McCain saw himself tied in knots by the demands of “winning” in 2008, badly limiting his appeal. His loss after years of carefully calculated pandering has left him neutralized as a political force. Paul disregarded conventional definitions of victory and built a movement that could extend well beyond his own political career.
Paul’s success matters because no matter who wins in 2012 they will find their policy options tightly constrained by the movement he has helped to construct. A potential Republican President will find himself in a particular bind. Just look at what’s happened to John Boehner. And coming in Paul’s wake is Rand Paul, a far more telegenic character who has mastered the Neo-Confederate synergy of Ante-Bellum Dixie economics and old-tyme religion. The organization Ron Paul has built could reach a tipping point under Rand’s influence.
For rationalist Republicans struggling to regain some relevance in the party Ron Paul’s success is particularly instructive. Instead of engaging in the contortions that created John McCain’s 2008 “success” in the nominating campaign, we might be better off repeating the apparent failure of 2000, following such failures with carefully grassroots coalition-building. The White House is a hollow prize for anyone who can’t influence the base.
Politics is not about winning elections, it is about wielding power. Paul offers some valuable lessons in politics that rationalists could put to use.