Ron Paul has been the surprise candidate of the 2012 primary season. The man who always polled solidly around 10 percent shot up to third place in Iowa and then came in second in New Hampshire, in both cases doubling his usual numbers. Part of the reason for this was his strong stand against government spending at a time of economic stagnation and debt crisis. His vocal opposition to overseas military involvement also resonates with a war-fatigued electorate.
But there are dimensions to Paul that put him beyond the pale for one Republican constituency or another. For some he is too extreme in his government downsizing. Others question his ability to get his revolutionary (counter-revolutionary?) policies through Congress. In Iowa, it was his "understanding" attitude toward al-Qaeda and Iran that pushed him off his peak and allowed Rick Santorum to take the crown.
At this point it is safe to say that Ron Paul is not going to be the Republican nominee. But his greatest achievement may be a generation or two down the road.
He is remarkably popular with young people. They like freedom, peace, and authenticity, and they have a radical streak that draws them to the "Ron Paul Revolution." Fox News reports that "he drew 46 percent of under-30 voters in New Hampshire, beating frontrunner Mitt Romney by a full 20 percentage points in that age group. In Iowa, he got 48 percent of the youth vote, 12 points higher than top-two-finishers Romney and Rick Santorum combined." When I see a crowd of politically pumped up youth who are inspired by Paul's message of freedom, I see future leaders.
This combination of a candidate who is personally unelectable but who attracts fervent young enthusiasts for political and economic liberty echoes the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign. The two men share a love for small government, personal liberty, and states' rights, though Paul would completely eliminate the federal income tax. Dr. Paul, being pro-life, is also more socially conservative, but not much insofar as federal law is concerned.
Like the Texas congressman, Sen. Goldwater had some odd foreign policy ideas, like considering the option of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. (Goldwater was obviously more hawkish than Paul is.) Referring to his principles of liberty, Goldwater appealed to voters with the slogan, "In your heart you know he's right." Alluding to what people saw as his reckless attitude toward our nuclear capacity, Lyndon Johnson supporters countered with, "In your heart you know he might," and "In your guts you know he's nuts."
Of course, Goldwater failed not in the GOP primaries but in the general election. The country rejected him overwhelmingly as too extreme. Goldwater was trounced, winning only his home state of Arizona (barely) and five states in the Deep South, while losing the popular vote by 23 points.
But the fundamentals of Goldwater's appeal to liberty inspired a new generation of conservatives. John McCain said, "He transformed the Republican Party from an Eastern elitist organization to the breeding ground for the election of Ronald Reagan." Because of this, when Reagan, who addressed the 1964 Republican National Convention, ran for president in 1980 on conservative principles, he was not speaking a dead language. He was able to take the movement into the White House and establish it as the mainstream of American politics.
Ron Paul is like Barry Goldwater insofar as many of his principles are classically conservative-limited government, constitutionalism, the nobility of individual liberty, restraint in foreign policy-though he applies them in ways that are unnecessarily controversial and discrediting. But as Ronald Reagan took the core of Goldwater's love for liberty and taught it persuasively and applied it prudently, Ron Paul could have a great statesman in his future. But he is not that statesman.