Why Does Ron Paul Scare You?

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Say he's elected president. What's the worst that could happen? Be specific.

ron paul worst.jpg

Every presidential candidate inspires voters to ask themselves, "If this person is elected, what's the worst that could plausibly happen?" Since we're risk averse, the imagined answers that take hold are huge factors in campaigns. In 1964, when Barry Goldwater ran, the worst case scenario in the minds of the electorate was that if he won, there would be nuclear war with the USSR. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton tried and failed to persuade voters that if Barack Obama was elected, the worst case scenario was a 3 a.m. phone call that he was too inexperienced to handle. Evaluating John McCain, a lot of voters, myself included, thought the worst case scenario was that he'd die, making Sarah Palin into the world's most powerful person.

So I got to thinking. What's the worst thing that could plausibly happen if Ron Paul wins? And by that metric, how does he measure up to the folks he's running against? Don't ask why I chose him. It's obvious. The idea of him in the White House makes a lot of the people reading this post uneasy.  Despite my libertarian sympathies, there is even a part of me that has always felt, without ever having thought it through, that putting Paul in the White House would be the biggest gamble of all the possible candidates running in the GOP primary. His tenure might have tremendous upsides: zero imprudently launched wars, a resurgence of civil liberties, more transparency. But he's also a radical who wants to see more fundamental change than any other candidate, he is least beholden to the political establishment, which constrains the behavior of conventional pols, and we've never seen him operate as an executive. One reason I prefer Gary Johnson, the other libertarian in the race, is that he was governor of New Mexico. We've seen how he would act given executive responsibilities. He didn't do anything that was crazy or obviously damaging to the state. As it turns out, he was easily reelected.

It is so much harder to gauge what approach Paul would take to governing. Even so, I am beginning to wonder whether my intuition that he represents the biggest gamble has led me astray: as I ponder the worst case scenarios that Paul might bring about, they don't seem scarier than the alternatives. Let's be charitable and say, for the sake of argument, that the worst thing any of the other Republicans will do is start an ill-conceived war on the order of Iraq. It's easy to imagine something worse, but it's enough to use $3 trillion, thousands of American lives lost, many more seriously injured, and hundreds of thousands of innocent foreigners dead as our benchmark. After all, those are real figures from a conflict that we're still waging.

For President Obama, say that the worst case scenario is destabilizing Pakistan so much with his undeclared drone war that the country is plunged into chaos, and hardliners either give a nuclear weapon to terrorists or else start a catastrophic war against India that results in a nuclear exchange. Or maybe the son of an innocent killed in an Obama ordered drone strike grows up to terrorize us with a biological weapon that he develops, killing hundreds of thousands. It could happen. A lot of experts contend that our drone wars are doing more harm than good.

That blow-back is inevitable.

What's the worst that Ron Paul could do? Try to get America back on the gold standard, only to find that he doesn't have the votes in Congress to do it? I am not just being funny. Though Paul has some radical domestic policy ideas, I just don't see any of them getting passed into law. And in foreign policy and national security matters, the areas where he would exercise the most unchecked discretion, he is the candidate you'd least expect to unwisely provoke or launch a war.

Of course, some folks, like Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, and John Yoo, think that the Ron Paul approach to foreign policy is itself dangerous, weak-kneed, and bound to empower our enemies. If we don't keep growing our military, keep troop toe-holds in numerous foreign countries, and shape geopolitics through force, we'll all be less safe, these men say. Fair enough. If you regard post-9/11 foreign policy as insufficiently hawkish, Paul isn't the candidate for you. And to their credit, neocons forthrightly attack Paul based on his foreign policy stances.

But I want to hear from everyone else, because I think that some conservatives, liberals and independents dismiss Paul without forthrightly attacking any positions that would plausibly become policy if he were elected. Granted, I am sure I have blind spots here. I'm inclined to support civil libertarians who want to end the drug war, shrink the deficit, and bring home the troops, especially because those happen to be issues upon which I place an especially high priority.

So what am I missing? I am asking in earnest. Paul is widely treated as a fringe candidate. Lots of folks seem to think the notion of him getting elected is scary. So be specific. What's the worst that could plausibly happen? And why does it frighten you more than the scenario for the candidate you back?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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