Posted by Brad @ 12:56 pm on April 26th 2011

Why Ron’s Running

I’d been perplexed as to why Ron Paul might run given the likely (now certain) entry of Gary Johnson, an almost tailor-made torch-bearer for the movement that Paul created. It seems not only like a dick move, and an uncharacteristically self-aggrandizing one, but also as perhaps a counter-productive one if your ultimate end is the mainstreaming of a movement and the popularizing/normalizing of an ideology. I don’t begrudge him running, precisely – even though, although there are certainly positives to have two libertarian candidates in the Republican field, the prospect of extra debate time doesn’t, to me, outweigh the problem of essentially knee-capping the possibility of either campaign consolidating small-l libertarian voters to the extent that they would then be able to reach out to “the middle”. There isn’t, by the numbers, a large enough contingent of hardcore small-l libertarian voters to themselves carry a candidate to anywhere but respectable fundraising totals, quasi-celebrity, and maybe some okay also-run vote totals when it’s all said and done that never approached anywhere near a level that would actually threaten the first tier candidates and move the candidate into a realm of “contender” that would REALLY begin normalizing thier ideas. And so to me the job of the small-l candidate this cycle would be to shore up Ron’s voters in the previous campaign, to keep those people in the bag, and then quickly move beyond. Instead, I think Ron’s decision forecloses on that possibility, as the challenge for both Paul and Johnson now will be to merely win a decisive amount of Ron’s supporters from the LAST campaign.

And if you want a few previews of how that might go in the trenches, remember all those Reason-LewRockwell flamewars from the last Paul campaign indicated or the problems created when Ron’s endorsement press conference – wherein he endorsed “anybody but the main two party candidates” rather than any one specifically, creating widespread resentment and virtually ensuring that his voters would dissipate for the cycle rather than get behind any general election candidate? My guess is the Paul-Johnson split winds up darn near 50-50 (although adjusted for Ron’s relative celebrity it might go closer to 75-25), and I also guess it’s probably going to be a bit more contentious than we’d like to think (though not from the candidates themselves, I’d imagine).

To put it another way, instead of seeing Ron’s ideas go mainstream – instead of liberty-inclined voters getting behind a candidate and following them towards a new level of respectability and a new place at the Republican table – I fear we now get to be treated to the inner fissures of the liberty movement (and the incumbent purity dick-size competitions) that LP voters regularly get to enjoy. So much energy is going to be wasted on small-l voters trying to decide which candidate to back, and the candidates’ teams trying to render contrasts (and Jack, here, at last, is where Ron’s relative right-wingness on things like abortion and immigration is going to finally be live), that I think it’s going to essentially nullify any possibility for momentum for either candidate to get BEYOND the already built-in (thanks to 2008) liberty base.

Point being, I think Ron’s decision here is, as far as the liberty movement is concerned, an inherently limiting, rather than expansive, move. But, in pondering this, I now think that that’s part of the point. To wit the most germane question might be, presuming again that Ron isn’t merely out for self-aggrandizement (which I think he is almost incapable of doing): Cui bono?

Now, I can’t really claim any special knowledge here. In 2008 I was involved in the (all volunteer) PA Ron Paul group, and eventually with the campaign in New Hampshire, but I was a (very) peripheral player in an already peripheral movement. None of the major players in the Paul campaign could pick me out of a lineup, I’m sure. But I did wind up interfacing with the campaign to a fair degree, and I was surprised – sometimes pleasantly, sometimes less so – by the ambition on display within the campaign’s inner circle. Especially once the money started rolling in, there was an almost vicious sense within the campaign that this was not an opportunity to be wasted, even though that was coupled with the full knowledge that there wasn’t a chance in hell of winning or even being particularly competitive. These were, by and large, not seasoned professionals – not the roster of beltway career campaign executives I found in, say, the Kerry or McCain 2000 campaigns. These were people who knew damn well that Ron Paul was their only shot at a political career. That’s not disparaging, btw, it’s just to say that many in the Ron Paul movement had a chip on their shoulders, and while they worked mightily to import best practices from traditional campaign models, a great deal of the work was in reinventing the wheel. And despite Ron being a Republican, everybody knew that that meant nothing in terms of the usual perks that a “party man” might get – a fundraising network, big donors, access to a certain amount of infrastructure, crossover staffers, institutional endorsements and networks, etc. So, a great deal of effort and energy in 2008 was geared not, strictly speaking, to campaigning, but to party-building.

What do I mean by that? Well, an example: the campaign was obsessed with list-making (as, btw, most campaigns are). Many campaigns share lists between one another (so, when Richardson drops out, he hands over a list of all his donors and volunteers and people who had expressed interest in him to Obama, who suddenly gets access to 200,000 or whatever new potential supporters/volunteers/donors). But of course, in Ron’s case, although he did get some help from the LP and a few other sources in the regard, he was mostly on his own. Over the course of the campaign, they built quite an impressive list of identified supporters w/ contact information – the lifeblood of building a grassroots – and as the campaign wound down, made the decision to keep their list to themselves rather than handing it over to the party or nominee or even dangling that possibility out there for leverage (say, a speaking slot at the convention). What’s more, they knew their list was worth more than a lot of other like lists, because theirs were supporters A. previously untapped by party sources (the Richardson/Obama list overlap would be fairly significant; the Paul/McCain lists would not be – my guess would be 90% of Paul’s lists would be names previously totally unknown to the RNC, which is incredible), and B. wildly more likely to give disproportionate amounts of time/money/enthusiasm to Paul or, conceivably, a future Paul-ish candidate. When the Paul campaign ended, they still had not only money, and not only an almost totally volunteer but now-seasoned and nearly professional campaign infrastructure across the country, but they also had a list of some 8 million names. They carried out of Paul 2008 almost, in a very real sense, a third party unto itself. The Paul Party.

Now, they made the (in my mind absolutely correct) move to keep that to themselves, and instead spin off into the Campaign for Liberty. But heading into 2012, the question is: what do you do with the Paul Party?

Keeping it to Ron Paul is problematic for all the reasons I mentioned above the fold. You can’t just sit out 2012, especially with the enormous zeitgeist in this cycle for liberty (in the Paulian sense of it). But passing on the torch is problematic as well, because a huge part of the advantage of a list is its exclusivity. Once it leaves your control it practically enters the realm of public domain, at least as it concerns the party, and it is inherently less valuable. It is, in a very real sense, a passing of the torch – your donors, your base, is given over (candidates who think they might run again can be very hard to separate from their lists). Of course, that’s not a real concern if you never have a need for it again, but if you do…

Which brings me to cui bono. And the answer to that question is “Rand Paul”.

Rand Paul began making noises that he might run some weeks back, almost solely to identify himself as a potential future candidate. And he leveraged that, now that people were asking him about running for President, into talking himself up as a candidate in 2016 (this is actually a corollary to the famous LBJ anecdote in which he wants to put out rumors that his opponent has sex with farm animals, not because anybody would believe it but because it would require said candidate to be out there saying “I do not have sex with farm animals; in this case, you put out anonymous sources saying you might run for president, and then suddenly every time Politico or Letterman or whoever interview you they’re asking about your plans for the presidency and the audience has you in their minds in a presidential context).

It’s clear that Team Paul plans to run Rand sooner rather than later, and his built-in advantage is that he begins essentially with Ron Paul’s campaign at his core. That’s his starting point. But, 2016 is a long way from now. Sitting out 2012 risks not only atrophying that core, but missing out on any opportunity to expand it and add a whole new several million names to your list. And, of course, were Ron to sit out and get behind Johnson, either they give up their list to him, or he spends the campaign making a list of his own and doing whatever with it. Come 2016, you’re left with your 2008 list, which won’t be worth much at that point (you should try cold calling voters from a two-cycle old list). And Rand starts where Ron did in 2008 – having to build up his own party before he can even think of taking a real stab at Christie or Rubio or whoever.

So why is Ron running? Simple. He’s holding down the fort. He’s keeping the fire burning so when his son arrives he can immediately start cooking, rather than waste his time gathering wood. That may miss an opportunity to do some damage this cycle, but making a splash this cycle – while it would be nice and they’ll take it if they can get it – isn’t really the point. The point is to not let the Paul party get away from them or spin out. If that means they kneecap Johnson this time around, so be it. They’re going to use the Paul 2012 campaign to essentially freeze the Paul 2008 campaign and transfer it to the Paul 2016 campaign. They’re not taking their ball and going home – they’re taking their ball and plopping down on the middle of the field, parking it there while play continues around them.

That’s essentially good or bad almost entirely depending on your investment in the Pauls themselves (and of course, for the now semi-professional team that came up through Ron’s 2008 campaign, that investment is significant). On the one hand, while it’s not self-aggrandizement in the traditional sense, it is a larger sense of it – they want to keep the movement about the Pauls. Politico nails it – and is one of the few sources that has. They are not building a movement so much as a dynasty. And, in keeping the movement about the Pauls, they are explicitly foreclosing on the possibility (and the opportunity) of having it expand beyond the Pauls. That is, indeed, precisely the point. Johnson? Nice guy, but we’ve got a Senator to groom.

My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, hard to blame them – and I can think of no other dynasty I’d rather see in American politics than a Paul one. And Rand Paul 2016, and his career from now until then? Count me as psyched. That strikes me as a goal very worthy of working towards. And the play here, if you’re a member of the Paul team interested primarily in keeping things in-house (your house), is a very smart one.

On the other hand, it is hard to not be a little resentful, and my guess is, just from being in the trenches, that there will probably be some elbows thrown as it pertains to Johnson, because the last thing they want is their supporters wandering off and becoming “Gary Johnson Republicans.” If you ever read Lew Rockwell, that essentially sums up how the Paul brain trust handles threats – an almost childish viciousness and propensity to circle the wagons. I do feel a bit that the fork in the road here is an important one for the movement – is it a cult of ideas, or of personality, and do the people behind Ron Paul wish for the movement to grow beyond and eventually supersede him, or do they value above all else keeping him at the helm?

All that sounds worse than it is. But I’ve spent the last 24 hours deconstructing it in my head, and that’s my read. At the end of the day, it points to a choice within the liberty movement of the GOP – does the movement live with the Pauls, or is it beyond and above them? Are the Pauls custodians of a movement, or are they the movement? It sort of sucks that the Paul people have foisted that choice upon us so quickly – I would have hoped that they, of anybody, might be immune to the professional interests and institutional inertia that leads to this kind of self-perpetuation, and instead be more committed to a greater vision. But it is what it is (and, again, hard to begrudge them), and again, it’s not entirely a bad thing. At the very least, for the first time in my political life, I suddenly am spoiled for choice in a GOP primary. Hard to get too resentful about that.

8 Comments »

  1. To be fair, wouldn’t you also call Ron Paul’s cold shoulder to Bob Barr in 2008 and his endorsement of Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin a dick move?

    Which makes me wonder, when has Ron Paul ever stuck his neck out for the libertarian movement when it doesn’t also involve advancing his own branding, status and name recognition.

    As you say, this isn’t about a movement now, it’s about dynasty.

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — 4/26/2011 @ 2:36 pm

  2. An outstanding analysis, Brad–I had been wondering about this very question and I think you nail it.

    And that having been said: it’s very, very sad that they’re approaching it this way.

    Comment by Rojas — 4/26/2011 @ 2:44 pm

  3. I did use the endorsement example in the post. There was very good reasoning that did not involve the Paul brand for not endorsing at the time, although on-balance I disagree with it and, in retrospect, it seems to fit more into the pattern that I’m advancing here than the pattern they (and I) were advancing then. Btw, he only endorsed Baldwin after Barr’s team went apeshit on them – it was explicitly a rebuke to Barr at that point, but his initial non-endorsement of Barr wasn’t (or wasn’t intended to be, although that’s how Barr took it).

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2011 @ 2:45 pm

  4. I think that whatever Ron’s reasons for the non-endorsement at the time, it takes on a new light now that he’s running again in 2012. It makes me more interested in digging into his past a bit more and questioning why he ran for President in 1988 in the first place. And what brought him back to the House in the 1990s. His concern for liberty? Or self interest?

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — 4/26/2011 @ 3:09 pm

  5. I’m editing a biography of Ron Paul at the moment, actually. A small press based in Canada had me contribute a chapter to a previous book they did on him (my subject was the 88 run), and they’re now having me rework the material into a more straight-up biography (I got interviewed for an upcoming NPR segment on him, although just for background).

    I’m just editing this one – didn’t do the original research (save for my 88 bit) – but I’ve never gotten the impression that his political career has ever been based on self interest – although the same cannot be said of the people who have gravitated to him over the years. His chief aide in the 1988 campaign was arrested in the final days of the election for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the campaign (Nadia Hayes), and there have long been questions about fishy financial dealings of a lot of his associates, including his associates in the gold coin business, the Mises Institute, etc. There has definitely been some weirdness around his inner circle, such that if somebody more investigative journalist-y than I started pulling those threads, they might find some strange things.

    But those are mostly just whispers, and never dealing with Ron himself, who is frankly a Boy Scout. He is the congressional equivalent of the guy that shows up to his local city council meetings every other week, year after year, out of an almost petulant belief in democracy. What you see really is pretty much what you get.

    That said I do believe – and this is just my personal opinion – that he’s a bit naive about who he surrounds himself with and not always very good about dissenting from his own advisers, or not letting them talk him into things that go against his better nature/judgment (the more positive spin: he’s very loyal and appreciates those who have stood beside him and been in the trenches with him). And Ron and his people have been around the liberty movement for a long, long time, and with that has come a sort of…snarling ambition? Hoarding instinct? I dunno, can’t put my finger on it exactly, but more germane than self interest, precisely, might be Paul’s place within the liberty movement. There has been so much back-biting and bad blood going back so many years that it’s not a stretch to think that the Paul guys, finally tasting vindication and success, mean to hang on to it (for a decent survey, here’s a geo-cities era blog post that kind of lays some of that stuff out)(there’s some sort of maxim waiting to be coined that the amount of viciousness increases in inverse proportion to the amount of actual power and money on the table). 2008 was, for a lot of these guys, a culmination of damn near 40 years of banging away to no avail (or to little avail, anyway – and whatever successes they chipped out they got via years of trench warfare), and to suddenly have that kind of success seemingly fall into your lap overnight is a powerful influence for anybody (athletes, musicians, whoever). It’s a hard thing to just give over, and it’s very, very easy to convince yourself how much you deserve it and that you’re the only person who has what it takes to carry the torch – and, essentially, rationalize and argue yourself into a position of, in essence, self interest.

    That’s all probably more philosophical than insightful.

    What was my point? Ah yes:

    I don’t think Ron Paul has been driven primarily by self interest, prior to now. I think, however, that with his 2008 success he’s now running dangerously close to that motive, or at least something so close to that motive as to be, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2011 @ 3:48 pm

  6. I’d be interested in the shadiness of the gold coin business. That seems like an industry that’s always had questionable ties, not just during the Glenn Beck days.

    So Ron Paul just suffers from the same problem US Grant had in trusting bad people?

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — 4/26/2011 @ 4:46 pm

  7. I don’t even know that I’d say they’re bad people, but even though I’m coy about it I don’t think it’s a secret that I have a fairly low opinion of some of the people in what I call the inner circle – which includes campaign/congressional staff as well as the constellation of people he trusts. Some of them, I might add, I have a very high opinion of – but there are a half dozen or so who I think A. think they’re smarter than they are, B. are out just as much to “hang with the big dogs” in the world of politics as they are to advance an ideology specifically, or just C. have core tenets to their philosophical agenda that I find repugnant.

    But yeah, the Grant analogy is a very good one. I guess all that was my way of saying: I don’t think Ron is generally out for his own self interest, but I think there are people around him who are.

    And, like I said, I’m not even sure how unique that is to Ron Paul, or even how relevant it is. It’s pretty common for people who suddenly break through with more success than they’ve ever whiffed before to have their first impulse be to hang on to it for dear life, which is more or less what I think is happening here (coupled with what is I’m sure a very earnest and sincere belief that Rand is the Next Great Hope for the movement, and I don’t mean to write that out entirely either).

    Comment by Brad — 4/26/2011 @ 5:08 pm

  8. Wow, fascinating analysis. I had not really considered that Ron Paul would split the 2012 liberty movement out of nepotism, but there it is.

    His endorsement of an outspoken Southern Nationalist/Civil War Revisionist in 2008 was a very significant disappointement for me. This seems of a stripe.

    Comment by Jack — 4/27/2011 @ 8:45 am

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