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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Ron Paul's Wild West World
Taking Ron Paul at face value
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a political party built on zombie-like conformity to mythical talking points, Ron Paul can appear thoughtful, sincere, and independent.
When asked by a moderator about the viability of "non-interventionist policies" in a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, Paul said that the 9/11 attacks were a reaction to America's military occupation of the Middle East.
Speaking for all of the other Republicans onstage, Rudy Giuliani expressed outrage at Paul's response, ending with, "I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that."
Pressed to soften his stance, Paul instead doubled down. His concluding message was, "They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and attack us because we're over there. I mean what would we think if…other foreign countries were doing that to us?"
It was common knowledge that al Qaeda had long been incensed about the dozens of U.S. bases in the Holy Land, and common sense that violence makes violence, but Paul's statement was anathema to the GOP candidates, who worked from the assumption that Americans had a God-given right to brown peoples' oil.
Enhancing his status as a pariah among macho Republicans playing on national victimhood, Paul followed up his debate comments with a press event where he offered Giuliani (who was running as "tough on terrorism," though he had done nothing to prepare New York City for 9/11) a reading list so he could better understand the process of blowback.
And while the other Republican candidates performed contortions with "go team" defenses of the war of choice on Iraq, Ron Paul had been way ahead of the curve. In September 2002, as the Bush Administration had begun a breathtakingly cynical full-court press to scare the public into an unnecessary war, Paul had given a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives in which he'd brought up 35 "questions that won't be asked about Iraq."
Paul had voted against the Patriot Act and introduced a "Sunlight Rule" (requiring a cooling-off period before lawmakers could vote on legislation) after the Bush administration rammed the 342-page Big Brother bill down Congress' throat with just one day of debate.
He was also the only Republican candidate to admit what a colossal failure the War on Drugs had been.
John McCain billed his 2008 campaign "The Straight Talk Express," but Ron Paul seemed to be the real thing.
"My faith is a deeply private issue to me, and I don't speak on it in great detail during my speeches because I want to avoid any appearance of exploiting it for political gain. Let me be very clear here: I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, and I endeavor every day to follow Him in all I do and in every position I advocate."
-from Ron Paul's campaign website
Earlier this year, Ron Paul announced that he would retire from his House seat at the end of the current term to focus on another presidential run. With the economy in the crapper, anti-government sentiment is running high, and the endless war in Afghanistan lends resonance to his message about withdrawing from the Middle East. Looking at mealy-mouthed Democrats and mean-spirited Republicans, many Americans reflexively prefer "none of the above." Ron Paul's outsider candidacy fits neatly into this groove.
The question is: what would Paul do if he was elected?
Ron Paul's get-government-off-our-backs sloganeering is attractive to many Americans in theory, but the best measure of a candidate's fitness for office is a sober assessment of their stances on the issues. By this standard, Paul's campaign platform is lacking.
Despite the paramount importance of international relations to the presidency, Paul's webpage gives foreign policy a grand total of ten bullet points. He's unconditionally opposed to intervention abroad, which would save us from large-scale blunders such as the invasion of Iraq, but what about low-cost, potentially high-yield actions? If Ron Paul were president today, Osama bin Laden would continue to live and breathe and plot in Pakistan, and there's a decent chance Muammar Gaddafi would have butchered the rebels in Benghazi and remained in power until he died of natural causes.
Apart from bedrock isolationism, it's hard to know what President Paul would do abroad, other than reflexively adopting long-held tenets of right-wing ideology such as scapegoating the United Nations and spiking our miniscule foreign aid budget, much of which goes to people in desperate poverty.
Would he support START or any other efforts to reduce the world's store of nuclear weapons? Would he try to negotiate a Middle East peace? He's a unipolar throwback in a multilateral world.
Paul's views on domestic policies are more discernible, but still vague in areas. He has no real plan for education, the linchpin of our future. Specifics are sidestepped for rhetorical support of the small fraction of children who are home-schooled and an obligatory swipe at "big government spending program[s]," though the federal government has minimal control over local school districts.
Where his ideas are defined, there are very clear winners and losers.
Paul's professed Christian faith is conveniently discarded when it comes into conflict with his libertarian creed. He is not his brother's keeper, and he's even worse to his sisters, particularly poor single mothers, who would be relegated to a barefoot-and-pregnant model of womanhood.
In a rare exception to his limited government theology, Ron Paul is against legalized abortion, even in cases of rape and incest; he has vowed to overturn Roe v. Wade and appoint only anti-choice judges. Paul is also opposed to using federal money for family planning. And while guaranteeing more accidental pregnancies and denying women the right to make their own reproductive decisions, Paul would take the hatchet to social services that benefit disadvantaged women and children. Food stamps, Headstart, and The Women, Infants and Children Program would be on the chopping block. Congress willing, he would cut Medicaid to the bone – at-risk youth lopped from the rolls would be left with emergency room-only coverage.
Paul propagates the lie that Barack Obama's healthcare plan represents a government takeover, and has vowed to repeal it if elected president. To the tens of millions of Americans who would have no coverage as a result, including millions priced out due to pre-existing conditions, he says tough titty. He has no concrete plans to increase access, guarantee security, or deal with skyrocketing costs. Paul claims that rates could be brought down by decreasing government regulation and "unleashing" the private sector when in fact the outsized place of the profit motive in U.S. healthcare is the central culprit in our astronomical costs, which are twice the first world average.
Rates are driven not by "the government"- which has very low administrative costs - but by all the private profit-driven piggies at the public trough. Doctors and medical device manufacturers who beef up their bottom lines with expensive and unnecessary procedures and equipment. Insurance companies that piss big portions of our healthcare dollar away on advertising, risk assessment, and lavish executive compensation. Wildly profitable pharmaceutical companies that benefit from publicly-funded research then turn around and gouge consumers (and swarm D.C. with lobbyists to kill any attempts to make prescription medications more affordable.)
While relying on the honor system with private profiteers, Paul would like to gut Medicare – because he believes it's unconstitutional - leaving Americans who are disabled or 65-and-over with limited care or costly supplementary coverage. Slashed Medicare benefits would be exacerbated by cuts to Social Security, which Paul also considers unconstitutional, despite clear Supreme Court precedent to the contrary.
Paul's rigid ideological views on healthcare are a sterling example of the contradiction at the heart of libertarianism: he places near-absolute faith in the motives of business interests that are inherently selfish and frequently short-sighted, yet portrays government (a mere vessel, or tool, with no profit motive) as monolithic - always bad, never to be trusted. Of the 2008 financial crisis, his website reads, "As the crash approached, Ron Paul was heavily criticized by the establishment media and even many of his fellow Republicans because he would not back down from his warnings about where big government policies were leading America."
The explanation is a willful misreading of recent history. In encouraging lenders to give home loans to people with lower incomes, the federal government played some part in the economic crisis, but the lion's share of the blame lies with private interests who took this basic edict and manipulated it for their own ends. Brokers who knowingly signed people up for loans they couldn't afford or understand. Mortgage companies who incentivized these unscrupulous business practices with big commissions. Banks who had lobbied for repeal of the Glass-Steagall law (which allowed them to mingle investment and commercial operations for the first time since the Great Depression), and then later lobbied for enormous, risky amounts of leverage from the Bush Administration's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to gamble on big packages of bad home loans. Lifelong libertarian Alan Greenspan, who kept interest rates at historic lows, even as the housing bubble inflated to dangerous proportions. The Bush Administration, who put financial industry-friendly foxes in charge of the regulatory henhouses, then compounded this error by failing to act in a timely and sufficient fashion when the storm clouds massed on the horizon, because of a mistaken belief that the government should keep out of the marketplace, no matter the circumstances.
In short, lack of regulation and concomitant over-speculation brought the house down. The crash was a consequence of not-big-enough government, rather than "Big Government," but this plain reality doesn't jibe with Paul's one-size-fits-all model of the world, so he simply ignores the evidence. Federal oversight of the financial markets is the only check on the Russian roulette wheel, and Paul's hear no evil, see no evil philosophy would only empower the forces that ushered us to this very ugly moment.
Paul's hostility to the federal government he wants to run would extend beyond brutal cuts to social services and water-carrying for Wall Street. He wants to eliminate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Transportation Safety Administration (which helps keep airplane passengers safe), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (tasked with holding employers accountable for workplace safety.) He also wants to dismantle the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would force states to deal with natural disasters alone, though most lack adequate resources. Asked about Paul's idea after Hurricane Irene, Connecticut governor Daniel Malloy simply said, "I think he's an idiot."
Like other Republicans - most of whom are in hock to the chemical, coal, and oil companies - Paul wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and leave enforcement up to state governments. This view places naive faith in state agencies' legal muscle and presumes that state governments are less bound to the interests of polluters than the feds, which is false. The most likely result of such a policy would be a race to the bottom, where red and pink states would roll back environmental laws to lure industry or keep them in-state. To the millions of people and other living creatures near power plants, oil drilling rigs, and mining sites, President Paul would essentially say get over it.
Paul's animus toward the EPA is of a piece with his indifference to global warming. Despite a scientific consensus that recent off-the-charts temperature increases are caused by human activity, and that these increases are contributing to species extinction, rapid glacial melting, and a growth in the number and/or severity of droughts, fires, floods, and other natural disasters, Paul is right at home in the Flat Earth Society wing of the Republican Party. In 2009 he said, "It might turn out to be one of the biggest hoaxes of all history, this whole global warming terrorism that they've been using, but we'll have to just wait and see, but it cannot be helpful. It's going to hurt everybody."
Paul's energy policies represent the worst of all possible worlds. He has no interest in encouraging conservation, opposes government investment in alternative fuels, and wants to expand dirty fuel production (oil, coal, natural gas).
Reading Ron Paul's website, one encounters a lot of gratuitous attacks on "government," "politicians," and "bureaucrats."
The subtext is that he sticks up for the little guy. Yet Paul's economic agenda would abandon poor and working-class people who need government assistance more than ever right now, and his views on taxes and regulation are one-percent America's wet dream, squarely in the hallowed GOP tradition of service to Big Business, the wealthy, and the even wealthier.
He doesn't have a problem with monopolies (opposing federal antitrust legislation as "much more harmful than helpful") and harbors the quaint notion that corporate Goliaths can be brought to heel through the "concept of the voluntary contract."
While everyday people struggle with daily living expenses, corporate profits are at record highs, and America's corporations have the lowest tax burden of any developed country - not to mention significantly lower rates than they had in the high-growth years after WWII.
Ron Paul's solution?
He wants to slash corporate tax rates from 35%-15%.
In addition, he supports a slew of tax cuts for the richest Americans. He wants to eliminate the progressive income tax (which provides half of the federal government's revenue), the estate tax (most of which is paid by people who inherit in excess of a million dollars), and the tax on capital gains, half of which benefit just the upper .1%. At the same time, Paul supports increases in consumption taxes that disproportionately impact working people.
These policies are a curious choice for a country with the highest income inequality it has had in eight decades. And apart from the recklessness of massive tax cuts for America's fat-and-happy when we're over ten trillion dollars in debt and the Baby Boomers are starting to retire, or the moral leprosy of tax cuts for millionaires alongside savage cuts to programs for those who can barely keep their heads above water, recent history suggests that these schemes won't help us out of our economic rut.
George W. Bush ramrodded two rounds of tax cuts for the rich through Congress in his first term and gave us what has been called the "lost decade." Job growth was anemic, many of the jobs that were created were low-wage, household incomes declined, and the accumulated debt of the 42 previous presidents doubled. Conversely, when Bill Clinton raised taxes on the wealthy, 22 million jobs - more than the total of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes combined – were created, wages rose, household incomes increased, and the deficit was on path to being paid off.
Incredibly, Ron Paul sells himself as a deficit hawk even as he supports huge budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy. To bolster this charade, Paul says he would not sign another debt ceiling increase. As we saw a few months back, the mere uncertainty of whether or not we would have a debt ceiling increase wreaked havoc on investment markets and dealt a blow to America's credit rating, which was lowered "for the first time in history." Flat-out refusing to extend the ceiling would shut down the federal government (no Social Security checks, no unemployment checks) and risk further damage to our credit rating and investor confidence. If you think things are a mess now, wait until China and other international lenders refuse to loan us money because they have no faith that it'll be paid back.
Then there are Ron Paul's newsletters.
On April 29, 1992, despite damning video evidence, an all-white jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers on charges of excessive force in their beating of Rodney King, setting the L.A. riots in motion. For most Americans this was a tragedy, but for Ron Paul, it was an opportunity for redneck humor. A piece in Paul's newsletter said, "Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began."
Paul's newsletters also referred to a "coming race war in our big cities" and "the federal-homosexual cover-up on AIDS," and made claims that young black girls were roaming around Manhattan in packs injecting white women with potentially AIDS-infected needles. One line read "Boy it sure burns me to have a national holiday for that pro-Communist philanderer, Martin Luther King," and another said that King had "seduced underage girls and boys."
In 1996, Paul's Democratic opponent for the House of Representatives outed newsletter quotes stating that "opinion polls consistently show only about 5% of blacks have sensible political opinions" and "if you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be."
In 2004, Paul was the only member of Congress to oppose a measure celebrating the Civil Rights Act, calling it "a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract."
According to Reason.com, a libertarian website that shares many of Paul's principles, when publicly exposed in The New Republic during the 2008 presidential election season on the poison in his own newsletters, Paul plead ignorance of their contents.
That same year, Paul gave the keynote address at the 50th anniversary celebration of the John Birch Society, an ultra right-wing group long steeped in the backwaters of anti-Semitism, opposition to civil rights, red-baiting, and excitable conspiracies involving international bankers.
The "new-and-improved" Paul continues to go nativist on his website. He attacks "welfare-receiving illegal immigrants," makes a point of his opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants (and citizenship for any of their children who are born in the United States), and backs hospitals that refuse to provide medical care for illegal immigrants.
It wouldn't be far-fetched to see Ron Paul as a mossback symbolic of the last wheezing gasp of white-dominated America. At best, he's someone with terrible judgment who is an odd choice to lead a multi-cultural country that will be minority-majority in our lifetimes.
Back in the good ol' days of covered wagons, people could stake a plot of land and do pretty much what they wanted without affecting their neighbors.
But things are different now. We live in an interconnected world of seven billion people. Man is no longer an island, and Ron Paul's quixotic presidential run is a perfect embodiment of how inadequate libertarianism is as a blueprint for governing. Out of laziness and ideological rigidity, Paul maintains a death grip on an outdated template that provides comforting oversimplification of a complex, ever-changing and -expanding world.
Ron Paul's America would make corporate overlords more powerful and increase America's dubious distinction as the Western country with by far the highest income inequality, infant mortality rates, and child poverty, not to mention the most expensive healthcare system and the only healthcare system that fails to cover all of its citizens, including thousands who die annually from lack of benefits.
We would have less racial and gender equality and a tattered safety net for seniors, many of whom would work until they dropped, as they did in the halcyon days before Social Security. If you lived in a state with weak or non-existent environmental regulations you could be blessed with dirtier air and water, and a higher probability of cancer and other physical ailments. OSHA would be gone or gelded, so those stuck in the less-evolved corners of the country who got injured on the job would just have to suck it up. Wheelchair-bound people would have to forgo some public places because the Americans with Disabilities Act would no longer be federally enforced.
Though he loves to mouth shiny words like "freedom" and "liberty" that give irony-impaired white boys the warm fuzzies, this is the grim Darwinian reality of the world President Paul would create if given the chance. Something like 19th century America with Skype and other modern conveniences to distract us from continuous corporate pillaging and the sidesaddle erosion in the standard of living of the majority of Americans.
One has to ask how principled it is to rigidly adhere to one's pet philosophy, vast human suffering be damned. Perhaps Paul isn't a straight talker at all, but just another right-wing politician with an insidious agenda cloaked behind empty rhetoric.
Fortunately, this nightmare is nothing but a counter-factual exercise. Paul's extreme, comical ideological purity can only be maintained because he's a fringe candidate, and fringe candidates almost never become president. Barring a miracle, he will expel a lot of hot air on the campaign trail before going home to Sleepytown, Texas.
On behalf of America's future, I wish Mr. Paul Godspeed with his retirement.
© Dan Benbow, 2011