Analysis: Ron Paul leaves a big impact

Texas representative he has very little chance of winning the US Republican nomination but has earned a prominent seat at the debating table.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jeff Haynes )
Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jeff Haynes )
DES MOINES, Iowa – Texas Representative Ron Paul might have come in third in the Iowa vote for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, but he took to the stage that evening confident he had prevailed.
To the applause of the hundreds of campaign volunteers and activists who packed the post-caucus party, Paul declared that not only did he do well enough to continue on to the New Hampshire primary next week, but that his ideas were influencing the very contours of the race.
“Where we are very successful is reintroducing some ideas Republicans needed for a long time,” he told the crowd, which waved American flags and campaign signs.
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“Believe me this momentum is going to continue, and this movement is going to continue, and we are going to keep scoring, just as we have tonight.”
Indeed, it might be Paul’s political philosophy that has the most impact on the Republican primaries and even the general presidential race. Despite capturing 21 percent of Tuesday’s vote, he has very little chance of winning the nomination according to political observers. But he has earned a prominent seat at the debating table and inspired a devoted core of constituents who are earnestly promoting his message, which stays front and center the longer he stays in the race or toys with running as a third-party candidate.
“I wouldn’t dismiss his third-place showing. It was impressive. This is a candidate who has wandered around in single digits for years,” said veteran Iowa politics watcher David Yepsen, referring to the 76-year-old politician’s previous attempts at the GOP nomination.
“He’s on to something here,” Yepsen said, referencing the angst many Americans feel over a devastated economy and more than a decade of war in the Middle East.
Yepsen assessed that what Paul represents “doesn’t win, but it does have an impact on the dialogue of the campaigns.”
Paul’s views include a strong isolationist approach to international affairs, which would see American troops brought home from Afghanistan, the end of foreign aid to countries including Israel and the removal of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, a policy that he sees as interfering with free markets.
“The great strides that we have made have been really on foreign policy,” Paul maintained on Tuesday night. He pointed to “the fact that we can once again talk in Republican circles and make it credible to talk about what Eisenhower said, to beware of the military-industrial complex, to talk about the old days when Robert Taft, Mr. Republican, said that we shouldn’t be engaged in these entangling alliances.”
That Paul was selected by one-fifth of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa means that his competitors will have to think seriously about how to reach out to his followers, according to Yepsen. Particularly since many of those who voted for him were participating in a caucus for the first time or even disaffected Democrats, indicating a wide appeal.
“The other candidates are going to try to attract those votes,” Yepsen said, adding that each nominee would try to integrate parts of his message that were sympatico with their own postures. He suggested that US President Barack Obama would likely emphasize his decision to bring troops home from Iraq, while his Republican adversary would probably focus more on cutting the size of government and the deficit, another chief issue for Paul.
On foreign policy, however, his views are so far outside the mainstream that it would be unlikely they would have a strong influence on the GOP.
“The Republican party will have to undergo a massive transformation to adapt to Paul’s policies, and it’s simply not going to happen,” said University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato.
Sabato judged that Paul’s 21% in Iowa was a ceiling – as he was likely to fare worse in many other states – in part because his foreign policy positions alienate so many Republican voters. That’s one of the chief reasons Paul hasn’t been seen as a possible winner of the GOP nomination, as well as polling in just the low single digits nationally, though he has been doing better in New Hampshire.
But Republicans acknowledge that their party is in some flux, with Iowa voters splitting almost evenly between the libertarian Paul, the pragmatic former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the social conservative Rick Santorum, formerly a senator from Pennsylvania.
“Clearly the Republican party is in a period of soul-searching,” said Brian Kennedy, Iowa chairman for the Romney campaign. “The party needs to decide what it’s about.”
But he predicted that, “At the end of the day, the Republican party is going to continue to support foreign policy that recognizes we have to have a strong United States defense, we have to support our allies, we have to stand up to threats in the world, that we can’t just go hide under our shell, which is essentially what Ron Paul proposes.”
While he acknowledged that Paul had put the issue of a more robust posture on Iran up for debate within the party, he concluded, “I think it’s a debate the Republican party is going to settle on the side of, we need to continue in our position of supporting a strong defense and supporting our allies.”
He also indicated that Romney would be pushing that perspective aggressively in the debates that are still to come between the Republican candidates. In his two public appearances on Tuesday, Romney made Iran the first policy issue he addressed, and the only one on foreign relations except for a brief mention of China in connection to American debt.
Several Iowa voters on Tuesday gave Paul’s foreign policy positions as a major reason they wouldn’t vote for him.
“He’s got a lot of views I like, but he’s got some absolutely dangerous ideas,” said Christopher Wolfe, 49, who decided to back Santorum.
But Kentucky senator Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son and one of his most outspoken surrogates, charged that it was the other candidates who were putting America in peril with their saber-rattling at Tehran.
“I think many of the other candidates are dangerous and naive because they’re reckless,” he said.
“Do you want someone to be in control of your nuclear weapons who is reckless and does not think about the potential consequences? So I find them to be dangerous.”
He also pushed back on the idea that his father’s positions on international affairs hurt him with voters.
“He gains a lot of his support by having a different foreign policy than the others,” he argued.
Even if many Republicans are troubled by his views, Paul has been effective in reaching beyond his party to bring in new voters. Of the first-time caucusers who participated on Tuesday night, 33% went for Paul, by far the largest amount.
In fact, there has been conjecture that he might run as a third party candidate if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination.
Cindy Penman, 45, voted for Obama in 2008 and had never participated in the Republican caucus before this year. She gave Paul’s foreign policy positions as a major reason for choosing him.
“I’m behind his foreign policy 100%,” she stressed.
Yepsen noted that there is a strong isolationist sentiment in America right now, and Paul is the candidate best at tapping into that.
“You don’t have to scratch very deep to find people who say we have to end foreign aid and bring the troops home,” he said.
Sabato noted that isolationism has always been a strong current in US politics, and that now it is being exacerbated by the size of the debt, the economic crisis and war-weariness.
But he said he didn’t expect it to shake the mainstream candidates who already had firmly established views that weren’t isolationist.
Ken Wald, a University of Florida political scientist, said that the isolationist talk on Iran and cutting foreign aid could be troubling to Israel supporters.
“There’s no doubt he’s getting publicity and attention,” he said. “But oftentimes when people become more aware of these things, their support diminishes” because their views are not in line with most voters’ thinking.
“No doubt there will be some anxiety, but at the same time the person becomes more firmly established in the public mind, [I think] that will discredit him,” he said.
Sabato agreed that on issues such as aid to Israel, Paul’s talk of cutting it off was a nonstarter.
“It’s too fundamental” to both parties, he said.
Paul on Tuesday night offered a different assessment of the impact his positions will have.
“Those are the issues that we have brought front and center. They’re out there. They’re not going to go away. And we have tremendous opportunity to continue this momentum,” he said to enthusiastic cheering.