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Earlier this week, ten-term Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul formally withdrew from his party’s presidential primary race. In commenting on the event, About.com Guide Justin Quinn indicated ambivalence. On the one hand, Justin affirms what he perceives to be Paul’s “conservative” bona fides, and it is in no uncertain terms that he expresses his admiration and respect for him. On the other hand, however, Justin admits to feeling “duped” by Paul’s parting words which, he believes, were “disquieting.” It is the following remark of Paul’s that Justin likens to “sour grapes”:
“We don’t have to live in the kind of America the two major parties have in store for us.”
Paul’s diligent refusal to endorse “presumptive” Republican nominee John McCain, coupled with his (so far modest) efforts to legitimize Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr’s candidacy, are facts that Justin no doubt thinks further underscores the aptness of his “sour grapes” metaphor.
Justin’s reading of Paul is not implausible, and he defends it with a graciousness of which our public political discourse is sorely in need. Be that as it may, and, hopefully, with the same generosity of spirit that he himself unfailingly exhibits, I must take issue with Justin’s analysis.
“Principle” is a term of no small importance in our political vocabulary. Its significance is born out by both the frequency of its employment as well as the connotation with which it is associated: to be judged “a person of ‘principle’” is among the highest compliments a person can be paid. Its privileged place in our political universe notwithstanding, the concept of a “principle” is shot through with ambiguity. This is a topic to which I may return in the future. For the sake of this column, I will accept the sense in which it is commonly used by Republicans and self-declared “conservatives.”
There are a number of “principles” to which the Republican Party claims to be uniquely committed. Among them are: “limited government”; “free enterprise”; “individual liberty”; “low taxes”; “a strong national defense”; and “the sanctity of life.” Even though these expressions are ineluctably vague, their long-standing association with the GOP has affected in the popular American imagination a sketchy image of the sort of vision to which this party purportedly subscribes, and the sorts of policies that it can be expected to advance.
It seems to me that Ron Paul, to a vastly greater extent than any other contemporary Republican of whom I am aware, exemplifies his party’s ideals. In short, he is our time’s “Mr. Republican.”
It is with justice that Paul identifies himself as a “constitutionalist.” Like the men who drafted and voted on it, Paul believes that the United States Constitution invests the federal government with rights and duties that are few in number and specifically delineated. Paul doesn’t just believe in “lower taxes”; he staunchly opposes the income tax system altogether, and he repudiates with every fiber of his being all of those redistributive policies that constitute what we call “the Welfare State.” Many Republicans argue against “the Welfare State” on the grounds of its deleterious effects on individuals, families, and local communities. Paul would doubtless agree with them. Yet his opposition to the collectivist juggernaut to which both major political parties have contributed so much derives primarily from his unrivaled respect for the private property rights that it systematically undermines. Furthermore, Paul’s unbridled passion for individuality engenders an unquenchable contempt for the collectivist penchant to treat people and institutions like tools that can be manipulated at will. This is what drives his uncompromising resistance to all “social engineering,” whether the society mercilessly subjected to the engineer’s designs is America, Iraq, or any other.
Paul is “a man of principle” if there ever was one. He not only served in the U.S. military, but for over forty years in his capacity as a doctor he delivered thousands of babies. That Paul is as ardent an advocate of the unborn as anyone is a fact that both his voting record and practice as an obstetrician make impossible to credibly deny: he never once performed an abortion. Also, during the debates in which he participated throughout the Republican primary season, Paul displayed precisely those virtues that Republicans (rightly) claim are crucial for a president to possess. In spite of the disrespectful treatment of which he was all too often a recipient, Paul invariably acted courageously, honestly, and even charitably toward his opponents.
Although you may not be able to determine it by what I’ve said, I have some philosophical differences with Paul. My point here, however, is that in both political and personal dimensions, Paul embodies the best to which his party claims to aspire. Stylistically speaking he may not be the most graceful candidate for the Republicans to have nominated, but substantively, his nomination was, or at least should have been, a “no-brainer.”