Pretending That Ron Paul Doesn't Matter Won't Make Him Go Away

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Like the mainstream media and Fox News, a dismissive National Review refuses to engage his arguments about non-interventionism on the merits

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In a mostly brave, mostly sensible editorial posted Wednesday evening at National Review Online, the editors of the conservative movement's flagship magazine took an emphatic stand against the rise of Newt Gingrich, listing his specific character flaws, laying out how he has demonstrated them recently, and explicitly urging GOP primary voters to back a different candidate. Who? The editorial argues that Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum are all worth another look, meanwhile making brief cases against the remaining Republican candidates.

Rick Perry "has seemed curiously and persistently unable to bring gravity to the national stage," the editors argue, while Michelle Bachmann has demonstrated poor judgment with some of her rhetoric. And the brief against Congressman Ron Paul? Here's the whole argument: "Representative Paul's recent re-dabbling in vile conspiracy theories about September 11 are a reminder that the excesses of the movement he leads are actually its essence."

It nearly made me spit out my drink.

The implication is that Rep. Paul is a 9/11 truther -- you'd think, reading that one sentence, that Paul stated or implied the U.S. government either orchestrated or had foreknowledge of the attacks. In fact, Rep. Paul responded to the September 11 attacks by voting to authorize an actual war against its perpetrators; and as anyone who is even passingly familiar with his worldview knows, his controversial opinion is that Islamist terrorists attack the United States partly because they are furious about the quasi-imperial role America plays in their countries. The blow-back theory is itself controversial, but it is obviously different from 9/11 Trutherism.

As it turns out, the editorial was misleadingly alluding to something Paul said a few days ago in Iowa, when he was talking about the Iraq War and his fears that we're headed for a war with Iran. "Just think of what happened after 9/11," Paul said. "Immediately before there was any assessment, there was glee in the administration because now we can invade Iraq. So the war drums beat." Contra Paul, I don't think it's fair to attribute "glee" to the Bush Administration. I presume even the most Machiavellian among its officials were horrified by the attacks. It is nevertheless true that longtime proponents of invading Iraq exploited 9/11 to urge a war. The Project for the New American Century is not a conspiracy theory. Nor are quotes like this one, spoken by Newt Gingrich on September 19, 2001: "If we don't use this as the moment to replace Saddam after we replace the Taliban, we are setting the stage for disaster."

Vice President Dick Cheney certainly felt the same way.

Conservatives in general and National Review in particular are perfectly within their rights to find Paul's views about blow-back, non-interventionism, and the undue bellicosity of the establishment wrongheaded, and to argue against his libertarian take on foreign policy. In the editorial above, however, Paul's actual views are egregiously obscured, and the editors seem to reach the transparently absurd conclusion that the popularity his foreign policy message has found is grounded in a conspiracy theory about 9/11 rather than understandable disgust at the actual foreign policy decisions made in response to it. 

The evasive treatment of Paul's views and popularity is of a piece with the general refusal among movement conservatives to logically rebut critiques of American foreign policy made by libertarians and paleocons. The crank card and the 9/11 card are often the extent of their response.

Dismissing the burgeoning number of Americans on the right who are suspicious of interventionism and hawkishness is intellectually suspect and unwise. A majority of Republicans now think that the Iraq War was a mistake. The general non-interventionist impulse on the right has never completely gone away. Paul is by no means the ideal vehicle for non-interventionism. But insofar as he plays a significant role in the GOP primary, it will be partly due to the fact that the legitimate concerns he articulates are taken up by no other viable candidate. One needn't be an ardent Paul supporter to suspect that National Review would rather that no viable GOP candidate spoke up to challenge the hawkish impulses on the elite right .

The conservative movement would rather ignore Paul on domestic issues too, for reasons that Ross Douthat identifies in a recent column. "Paul, for all his crankishness, is the kind of conservative that Tea Partiers want to believe themselves to be: Deeply principled, impressively consistent, a foe of big government in nearly all its forms (the Department of Defense very much included)," Douthat writes. "Gingrich, on the other hand, is the kind of conservative that liberals believe most Tea Partiers to be -- not a genuine 'don't tread on me' libertarian, but a partisan Republican whose unstinting support for George W. Bush's deficit spending morphed into hand-wringing horror of 'socialism' once a Democrat captured the Oval Office."

Douthat is exactly right. Paul's very presence in the race, and especially his strong showing in Iowa polls, puts every Tea Party voter who supports any other candidate in the uncomfortable position of voting against the more principled, consistent proponent of small government, and for the guy they regard to be more electable, or partisan, or better at formulating zings against liberals.

There is nothing inherently wrong with factoring electability into the candidate one votes for in a primary, or backing a candidate who is less conservative on domestic policy because one agrees with his foreign policy views. But these are the sorts of tradeoffs and compromises that many Tea Partiers have spent a lot of time disparaging when other people were making them. A vote against Paul requires either cognitive dissonance -- never in short supply in politics -- or a fundamental rethinking of the whole theory of politics that so recently drove the Tea Party movement.

Ironically, by ignoring Paul so transparently and absurdly, the conservative movement is behaving a lot like the one institution it hates more than any other -- the establishment media. As Jon Stewart put it months ago:




And again this week (toward the end of this next clip):



In the course of endorsing Ron Paul in the GOP primary, Andrew Sullivan put it this way:

The constant refrain on Fox News that this man has "zero chance" of being the nominee is a propagandistic lie. Nationally, Paul is third in the polls at 9.7 percent. In Iowa, he may win. In New Hampshire, it is Paul, not Gingrich, who is rising this week as Romney drifts down. He's at 19 percent, compared with Gingrich's 24. He is the third option for the GOP. And I believe an Obama-Paul campaign would do us all a service. We would have a principled advocate for a radically reduced role for government, and a principled advocate for a more activist role. If Republicans want a real debate about government and its role, they have no better spokesman.

What National Review wants is a Republican who can beat Barack Obama. But I don't think it or anyone else can prevent a reckoning with the libertarians in the right's coalition, so long as the rest of the Republican field persists in demanding more defense spending, fewer civil liberties, and war without end.

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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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