Politics & Policy

The Constitution and the Coot

Ron Paul debates in 2011. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
From the Jan. 23, 2012, issue of NR

It should be some kind of requirement, according to constitutional scholar Adam Freedman, that every presidential election have a candidate who represents the Constitution.

The “constitutional candidate” wouldn’t have a prayer of winning, of course — the best way to win the presidency, we’ve learned, is to promise to do all sorts of extra-constitutional things, to toss the text and all of its tiresome restrictions and counterweights aside in an orgy of promises and giveaways — but it would be useful, and instructive, to have someone up there on the dais to act as a kind of constitutional ombudsman. Someone tiresome and irritable, probably, who doesn’t mind beginning every sentence with “The Constitution doesn’t give you the authority to do that” or “Where does it say in the Constitution that government gets to tell me to lay off the carbs?” That sort of thing.

Although if you really think about it, we have had exactly that sort of candidate in the past two presidential elections.

The bad news is that the candidate has been Ron Paul.

It was always fun to see Paul’s dyspeptic, curdled expression during the 16,000 Republican debates this autumn. (There were 16,000 of them, weren’t there?) It was bracing to see him shrug off appeals to weasel-word his responses — just shutter the Fed! dump NATO! — and it was especially interesting to watch the other candidates, who, philosophically, aren’t supposed to be all that different from Paul, ballet-step around him, like he was one of those loud talkers at the neighborhood bar who make a lot of sense, mostly, but then every now and then say something — Lincoln was a tyrant! — that makes everyone think, “Oh, I get it. You’re just . . . insane.”

Ron Paul isn’t insane, of course. His views on sound money and central banking, and even his narrow interpretation of the national-defense interests, are principled — and not novel — conservative positions. You and I may not agree with them — I do, mostly, up to the part about allowing Iran to bomb Israel — but on the crackpot scale of 1 to Lyndon LaRouche, they’re barely a 3. And if we’re all really honest about it, the sainted Abraham Lincoln did, in fact, violate the Constitution on several occasions. And over a few beers, say, among friends, these are interesting and diverting topics of conversation.

But like all of those kinds of conversations, they always end up the same way. The conversation winds along interesting abstractions and what-ifs, and then someone — usually the old guy at the end of the bar — says something truly out-there — “There’s no constitutional reason, for instance, why the children of illegal immigrants cannot be eaten” — and then the conversation devolves into weird irrational tributaries, and everyone moves on to something else, but you always have the feeling that one guy — usually the old guy at the end of the bar — really meant it.

In other words, there’s Ron Paul, and there’s the Ron Paul newsletters, and you cannot have one without the other. One, in fact, leads inexorably to the other. First you start talking about sane, grounded stuff — sound money; harmful central banking — and then, eventually, you start suggesting how it might have been the Israeli Mossad that bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, or how the AIDS virus is quite possibly a product of secret government research gone awry.

The Ron Paul newsletters — published in the 1980s and 1990s under various hilariously pompous titles, such as “Ron Paul’s Freedom Report” and “The Ron Paul Survival Report” — are filled with a nutty blend of libertarian boilerplate and conspiracy fruitcakery. Take the first part away, and what you have left is basically interchangeable in tone and idiocy with any left-wing rag you can get your hands on. Oh, sure, you’ll have to substitute some words — “corporate fat cats” for “urban blacks” — but you’ll find that the writers of both the “Ron Paul” oeuvre and your standard lefty scandal rag have saved the phrase “Jewish bankers” on a macro.

The problem with the crank at the end of the bar isn’t that he’s one of those flinty libertarians who demand that we all live in a Randian paradise of winner-take-all — that’s what makes libertarians often tiresome and irritating, but it’s an interesting and thoughtful philosophy — it’s that the only reason guys like that can see for why we don’t live in a splendid constitutional utopia is that someone — the government, the guy in the black helicopter, the Jews, the urban blacks — is holding us down.

Ron Paul the candidate occupies an interesting and useful place in the race. He’s a principled weirdo, the unlikable old coot down the street, the guy you have to respect for his stubborn adherence to the rulebook of the great American experiment. And that’s what most voters see in him, too. “Really admire the point of view,” they say. “Too bad he’s too weird to be president.”

Whatever the reason for the weird ramblings in the Ron Paul family of publications — and to me, anyway, the most likely one is: the guy wanted to move some product, and his customers ate that crap up — it does suggest a sad conclusion: that the job of the constitutional candidate — the ombudsman for the founding document, the champion of the framers — is unlikely to appeal to anyone except the humorless crank at the end of the bar. And that’s not Ron Paul’s fault. That’s ours.

— Rob Long is a contributing editor of National Review and a contributor to Ricochet. This article appeared in the Jan. 23, 2012, issue of National Review.