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Interesting Views Do Not Guarantee Relevance

Whatever else can be said about Ron Paul, he is an interesting guy.

You have to appreciate an elected official who writes, “So-called moderate politicians who compromise and seek bipartisanship are the most dangerous among the entire crew in Washington,” and who calls President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech “odious.”

But being interesting does not guarantee relevance. And for every instance in which the nominally Republican Texan seems to stand at the nexus of contemporary debate in his latest book, “Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom,” there is another in which he takes a flight of fancy that separates him from the debate that much of the rest of the country is trying to have.

“Liberty Defined” is, in effect, Paul’s policy papers bound and delivered in book form — more along the lines of Paul’s “A Foreign Policy of Freedom” than his “End the Fed.” The brief chapters make for quick, interesting — there’s that word again — reading, touching on virtually every topic of importance in political life today.

It covers a broader swath of policy than the book that grew out of Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, “The Revolution: A Manifesto,” but it offers up the same sort of readable informality.

The main purpose historically served by third-party candidates — and even within the Republican Party, the one-time libertarian presidential candidate Paul thinks and behaves like a third party — has been to advance unconventional ideas until they become conventional. After the movements’ best ideas are co-opted by the major parties, the movements tend to wither away.

Some of the ideas that Paul presents in “Liberty Defined” are already mainstream ideas, in one political party or the other, and they got that way without his help.

He writes like a traditional Republican on abortion, global warming, gun control and hate-crime legislation, and like a traditional Democrat on civil liberties and some (though hardly all) U.S. foreign policy. Any effort to bridge the gap between the parties on those issues seems highly unlikely, in the near or long term — what would be the point of having two parties if they agreed on all of that?

At their most radical, though, one wonders whether the policies that the book prescribes can bring either party to co-opt Paul’s position. He has deeply devoted followers that could be put to good use by either party. But the very depth of their devotion to Paul’s most outlandish ideas — reverting to the gold standard, elimination of the central bank (a topic covered in minute detail in Paul’s book “End the Fed”), drug legalization, a withdrawal from international organizations of all kinds — raises the question whether they could ever find a home in the Republican or Democratic parties.

Part of Paul’s problem in persuading either party to accept his ideas is the way he argues his points. The book displays particular animus for neoconservatives, all but libeling them with charges such as: “a responsibility to deceive the masses” is among the ideas “that permeate the neoconservative philosophy.” In another instance, he suggests that those who disagree with his notions of limited government “despise liberty.”

One of the worst aspects of Paulism — and certainly not unheard of in other quarters — is the questioning of motives. Disagreements are not just policy differences or a different way to view the world; they are evidence of sinister intent on the part of the opposition. The unnecessary abrasiveness that pops up from time to time in “Liberty Defined” is not the best way to create a coalition.

And, in places, his writing is downright condescending to the voters he is asking to join his crusade, with multiple references to how the American people have been “brainwashed” and “bamboozled.” How, one wonders, could such an unenlightened populace ever be made to see the light?

It seems more likely that Paul and his legions, rather than being the beacon of reform toward which the parties gravitate, are destined to serve as a swing group on individual issues.
Paul and son Rand, a GOP Senator from Kentucky, are certainly a guiding light for many in the tea party movement when it comes to federal spending. On that issue, the Pauls have a ready set of allies in Congress and a mass of voters who see the issue much as they do.

But it is difficult to see where else he can translate his Paulistas into a mainstream force in the Republican Party. He works hard to avoid being linked with the pre-World War II America First movement, and that portrayal of Paul’s philosophy is thin, at best. He has more in common with George McGovern’s 1972 vision of “Come Home, America.”

Although he clearly sees himself as heir to the Founding Fathers’ legacy, he sounds more like Noam Chomsky than Thomas Jefferson when talking about “American Empire.” In any case, he is going to have a tough sell on foreign policy. His ahistorical criticisms of Israel are not likely to find a ready audience in either party.

And that gets to the nub of the contradiction at the heart of Paul’s book and his broader political effort. He wants the people to have more power but doesn’t much care for what they’ve done with it to date. And he doesn’t express much confidence that they will figure it out anytime soon, what with all the brainwashing and bamboozling.

The American political system needs people such as Ron Paul and books like “Liberty Defined” to push the boundaries, to expand the range of ideas and to direct the energies of people who want to be involved and feel like the system doesn’t include them.

But as much as the system needs Paul, you wonder sometimes whether Paul needs the system. His devotion to principle is admirable, and all too rare. What “Liberty Defined” tells us is that his devotion to finding a place where his principles and the system can coexist remains open to debate.

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