In 2008, nobody much cared what Ron Paul wanted: He was dismissed as a fringe candidate, someone defined by the decades he spent losing 434-to-one votes in the House and refusing to endorse his party’s presidential candidate. In this presidential cycle, however, questions about Paul’s intentions have risen, precisely because his performance has begun to resemble that of a conventional politician who can compete if not win. Indeed, it’s a sign of Ron Paul’s greatly enhanced influence that Republicans are still asking, this far into the primary season: What does the man want?
The primary season has consistently furnished evidence of Paul’s outsized influence. Of course, Paul has not won a single caucus or primary so far this year. But as Micah Cohen explained in early April, he more than doubled his vote as compared to 2008, despite spending less money. He attracted well over a million votes—about 10 percent of the aggregate vote in primaries and 20 percent in caucuses. Even as Rick Santorum and (finally) Newt Gingrich dropped out of the race, Paul has persisted.
And his intensely loyal supporters have dominated delegate selection processes in a number of states—including Iowa, Massachusetts, Colorado, Louisiana and Minnesota—that earlier held primaries or “beauty contest” straw polls. Most shockingly, thanks to their big wins in district conventions, Paulites could make up a majority of delegates from Mitt Romney’s home state of Massachusetts. Though these delegates will be pledged to vote for Mitt, they can support Paul on procedural votes—and if he wishes, help him obtain the five-state endorsement he needs to have his name placed into nomination. Paul could also win a majority of the actual delegate votes in Iowa, where delegates are not bound by the January caucus in which Paul finished third. A Paulite was recently elected state party chairman there, and his comrades are almost certain to control a majority of the state party committee.
It is increasingly clear, then, that the Paul campaign will achieve its goal of being visibly represented at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. While a full-on platform fight is unlikely (and anachronistic), Paul’s supporters have the potential to cause quite a commotion. The Romney campaign and the RNC, of course, would prefer to ensure that things stay quiet. And since Paul’s supporters are intensely loyal to their hero, he’s in a position to bargain for their good behavior in Tampa. Which brings us back to the original question: What does he want?
The underlying reality is that Dr. Paul and his fanbase have already won what they most craved from Republicans: respect. I don’t just mean his hard-earned inclusion in candidate debates, or the civil treatment he’s received from his rivals. In a very real sense, on domestic issues at least, the GOP has moved dramatically in Paul’s direction since 2008. That’s most apparent in discussions of monetary policy. While none of Paul’s rivals in the presidential contest embraced a gold standard or abolition of the Fed, the alleged perils of monetary inflation have been emphasized far more than one might expect in the midst of a recession. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru noted in February:
Many Republicans tell pollsters that they will not vote for Paul because of his foreign-policy views. Nobody says that his monetary views are a deal breaker; no pollster even bothers to ask. There is no organized opposition to Paulite views on money within the Republican party or conservative movement, and the people who hold those views hold them intensely.
More fundamentally, the entire edifice of “constitutional conservatism” that has become the preferred signifier for economic ideology within and beyond the Tea Party is pretty much boilerplate Paulism, reflecting his belief that much of twentieth-century governing practice in the United States represented an illegitimate expansion of federal power. The obdurate resistance to non-enumerated federal powers that made Paul, according to a detailed analysis by University of Georgia political scientist Keith Poole, the single most conservative member of Congress to serve between 1937 and 2002, is now firmly within the GOP mainstream.
But as Ponnuru indicated, there is one policy area where Paul’s views are still well outside his party’s mainstream: his staunch anti-interventionist philosophy and hardcore positions on civil liberties. It is probably fortunate for Paul that foreign policy was a relatively minor issue in the 2012 GOP nominating contest. But when it did come up, Paul sounded notes that would have been viewed as far-left had they been articulated in a Democratic candidate debate. In a party where “American exceptionalism” is a constant theme, the “threat” of Islamism abroad and at home is considered urgent, and unconditional support for Israel is axiomatic, Paul expressed empathy for the Iranian regime and apologetic regret for past meddling in Iranian domestic politics.
Attitudes like that are rarely expressed by GOP politicians—except by Paul’s son, Rand, the junior senator from Kentucky. In a move that would make his father proud, Rand Paul recently blocked a unanimous consent agreement on a resolution to ratchet up economic sanctions on Iran and Syria, demanding explicit assurances that it would not be used to justify a military intervention. But Rand Paul bears few of the scars of decades of ideological battle earned by his father. He enjoys a closer relationship with the GOP establishment in the Senate and elsewhere; according to some reports, he is already plotting a presidential candidacy of his own, if not in 2016 then in 2020. If anyone could bring anti-interventionist foreign policy into the mainstream of the GOP, it’s Rand.
This suggests a simple answer to what Ron Paul wants: He is ready, like Moses, to withdraw from the battleground having never entered the Promised Land, entrusting that task to his Joshua, his son. And whatever the doctor can do to make his son an accepted voice for a respected point of view on foreign policy—whether it’s securing a convention speech, a platform concession, or just a place at the table in hypothetical Romney administration deliberations—he will cash his last gold coins to make it happen.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.