By now, readers will know who I favor in the Democratic race. Here's my most considered case. But what of the GOP? For me, it comes down to two men, Ron Paul and John McCain. That may sound strange, because in many ways they are polar opposites: the champion of the surge and the non-interventionist against the Iraq war; the occasional meddling boss of Washington and the live-and-let-live libertarian from Texas. But picking a candidate is always a mix of policy and character, of pragmatism and principle. And what these two mavericks share, to my mind, is a modicum of integrity. At one end of the character scale, you have the sickening sight of Mitt Romney, a hollow shell of cynicism and salesmanship, recrafted to appeal to a base he studied the way Bain consultants assess a company. Paul and McCain are at the other end. They have both said things to GOP audiences that they knew would offend. They have stuck with their positions despite unpopularity. They're not saints, but they believe what they say. Both have also taken a stand against the cancerous and deeply un-American torture and detention regime constructed by Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. In my book, that counts.
I admire McCain in so many ways. He is the adult in the field, he is attuned to the issue of climate change in a way no other Republican is, he is a genuine war hero and a patriot, and he bravely and rightly opposed the disastrous occupation policies of the Bush administration in Iraq. The surge is no panacea for Iraq; but it has enabled the United States to lose the war without losing face. And that, in the end, is why I admire McCain but nonetheless have to favor Paul over McCain. Because on the critical issue of our time - the great question of the last six years - Paul has been proven right and McCain wrong. And I say that as someone who once passionately supported McCain's position on the war but who cannot pretend any longer that it makes sense.
Let's be clear: we have lost this war. We have lost because the initial, central goals of the invasion have all failed: we have not secured WMDS from terrorists because those WMDs did not exist. We have not stymied Islamist terror - at best we have finally stymied some of the terror we helped create. We have not constructed a democratic model for the Middle East - we have instead destroyed a totalitarian government and a phony country, only to create a permanently unstable, fractious, chaotic failed state, where the mere avoidance of genocide is a cause for celebration. We have, moreover, helped solder a new truth in the Arab mind: that democracy means chaos, anarchy, mass-murder, national disintegration and sectarian warfare. And we have also empowered the Iranian regime and made a wider Sunni-Shiite regional war more likely than it was in 2003. Apart from that, Mr Bush, how did you enjoy your presidency?
McCain, for all his many virtues, still doesn't get this. Paul does.
Paul, moreover, supports the only rational response: a withdrawal, as speedily and prudently as possible. McCain, along with Lieberman, still seems to believe that expending even more billions of dollars to prop up and enable a fast-devolving, ethnically toxic, religiously nutty region is somehow in American interests. Given the enormous challenges of the terror war, the huge debt we are piling up, the exhaustion of the military, the moral and financial corruption that has its white-hot center in Mesopotamia, I do not believe that an endless military, economic and political commitment to Iraq makes sense. It only makes sense if we are determined to occupy the Middle East indefinitely to secure oil supplies. But the rational response to oil dependence is not to entrench it, but to try and move away from it. Institutionalizing a bank-breaking, morale-busting Middle East empire isn't the way to go.
But the deeper reason to support Ron Paul is a simple one. The great forgotten principles of the current Republican party are freedom and toleration. Paul's federalism, his deep suspicion of Washington power, his resistance to government spending, debt and inflation, his ability to grasp that not all human problems are soluble, least of all by government: these are principles that made me a conservative in the first place. No one in the current field articulates them as clearly and understands them as deeply as Paul. He is a man of faith who nonetheless sees a clear line between religion and politics. More than all this, he has somehow ignited a new movement of those who love freedom and want to rescue it from the do-gooding bromides of the left and the Christianist meddling of the right. The Paulites' enthusiasm for liberty, their unapologetic defense of core conservative principles, their awareness that in the new millennium, these principles of small government, self-reliance, cultural pluralism, and a humble foreign policy are more necessary than ever - no lover of liberty can stand by and not join them.
He's the real thing in a world of fakes and frauds. And in a primary campaign where the very future of conservatism is at stake, that cannot be ignored. In fact, it demands support.
Go Ron Paul!
(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty.)