Ron Paul's Ascent Cannot Be Separated from His Foreign-Policy Views

Despite their centrality to his appeal, some of his critics discount the importance of his anti-interventionist views or else fail even to acknowledge them.

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As the only remaining GOP candidate who is skeptical of America's interventionist foreign policy and against the prospect of future wars of choice in the Middle East -- positions held by perhaps half of rank-and-file Republicans -- Ron Paul naturally owes an important part of his popularity to his positions on those issues, which distinguish him from the rest of the party's field. Strangely, however, I keep seeing pieces ostensibly grappling with Paul's popularity that completely and inexplicably discount his foreign-policy views.

To cite three recent examples:

1) David Frum writing at CNN:

Paul's core following has been small but fervid. However, Paul now is gaining a larger following, especially among younger voters attracted by his message of drug legalization and his comprehensive -- if utterly wrong-headed -- explanation of the country's economic crisis.

2) And Daniel Henninger writing in The Wall Street Journal:

Let no one deny that swimming eternally amid the rightward waves of American politics is an ever-present school of fish that would solve Washington's spending problem mainly with cuts in the defense budget (ending foreign "entanglements"), set a place at the nuclear table for Iran ("Who are they going to bomb?"), cut Israel loose, cut the Federal Reserve loose, and legalize many currently controlled substances.

The Ron Paul vote is a separate matter. In June, polling put the familiar Mr. Paul at about 5.5% for the Iowa caucus and 8% nationally. That would be his normal ceiling. Suddenly, Ron Paul is the Iowa front-runner at over 22.5% and is up to 12% nationally. Why? Is this surge a vote for the congressman named Ron Paul? Impossible. It's in fact the Republican Party protest vote. Since summer, this block of votes has jumped from one candidate to another, desperate for an anti-Obama champion whose anti-Washington intensity matches its own.

3) And here's Dorothy Rabinowitz, also in the WSJ:

There is among some supporters now drawn to Dr. Paul a tendency to look away from the candidate's reflexive way of assigning the blame for evil -- the evil, in particular, of terrorism -- to the United States. One devout libertarian told me recently that candidate Paul "believes in all the things I do about the menace of government control, and he's a defender of the Constitution -- I just intend to take what I like about him." The speaker, educated and highly accomplished in his field (music), is a committed internationalist whose views on American power are polar opposites of those his candidate espouses. No matter. Having tuned out all else that candidate has said -- with, yes, perfect consistency -- it was enough for him that Dr. Paul upheld libertarian values.

This admirer is representative of a fair number of people now flocking to the Paul campaign or thinking of doing so. It may come as a surprise to a few of them that in the event of a successful campaign, a President Paul won't be making decisions based just on the parts of his values that his supporters find endearing. He'd be making decisions about the nation's defense, national security, domestic policy and much else. He'd be the official voice of America.

Without raising any questions about the wisdom of Paul's foreign-policy views or the other critiques of his candidacy made by the writers above, it's just bizarre to take a guy who spends every presidential debate deliberately and forcefully distinguishing himself from the field on a major issue and then treat him as if that issue is completely incidental to his overall popularity.

It is especially bizarre knowing that hawkish establishment Republicans are far to the right of the rank and file and overrepresented in the GOP primary. This reminds me of nothing so much as the failure of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 to recognize or acknowledge how much the Iraq War was hurting them.


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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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