Iowa holds center stage tomorrow, officially kicking off this year’s presidential election with the highly anticipated caucus that, curiously, has no clear front-runner.
Instead, everything seems so tentative at this very late stage, with a slim lead going to a former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, considered by many to be highly electable in the general election but who is viewed suspiciously by many GOP voters and activists as too moderate, and a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, who is surging in the polls – to third place, anyway – by vigorously wooing social conservatives who rank government opposition to abortion and gay marriage above all else.
It’s an interesting contrast, because Romney is viewed as the candidate who gains the most if he actually does win Iowa, since he’s expected to easily win the New Hampshire primary right after that. If Santorum wins, nobody thinks he can build enough momentum to actually get the nomination, any more than former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did when he carried the Iowa caucus in January 2008 and subsequently lost just about everything else to the eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
So, pragmatism versus follow your ideological heart. Decisions, decisions.
With so many voters in that state apparently still up for grabs, I’ve decided to make a recommendation to Republicans across the nation on who they should nominate to carry the party banner this fall: Ron Paul.
I say that not because I’m personally endorsing the Texas congressman – I’m not. I’ll be voting in Florida’s Jan. 31 GOP presidential primary for someone else, so Paul isn’t even my first choice.
I also don’t say this because I think Paul would be the most electable. This has nothing to do with which candidate would fare best in the fall challenging President Obama. In fact, most political observers think Paul would make an astonishingly weak candidate against an otherwise vulnerable president.
So why Ron Paul? Because if the Republican party truly wants to make 2012 the year of scaling back government and getting Washington out of our lives, why not give voters a real choice between a Democrat who believes the government – and the expanded federal spending that he’s endorsed under his watch — can cure the nation’s ills, versus a genuine Libertarian conservative who doesn’t have a laundry list of sacred cows in Washington to protect, and who believes the less government does, the better. That includes Paul’s calls for elimination of a lot of federal agencies, reigning in foreign aid to let other nations stand on their own, and a hands off policy on social issues, which Paul would leave to the states to decide.
In all likelihood, the last time this nation had that crystal clear a contrast was probably in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson sought a full term advocating a Great Society, or federal spending programs designed to eradicate poverty. His opponent that year was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who called for the exact opposite: scaling back the size of government and turning a lot of functions back over to the states. A choice, not an echo, Goldwater declared. Johnson won, in a historic landslide, taking 60 percent of the vote and carrying all but six states. In 1964, voters still saw the government as a positive force in their lives.
And today? We hear that voters are fed up with high government spending and the soaring budget deficit, and want considerably less government overall.
But will they get that choice from any Republican except Paul?
One of the most amusing aspects of this race has been watching the GOP nominees savagely attack one another’s credentials on the issue of who is a true conservative – and it’s hard not to conclude what each and every one of them has already come to assume: that the others in the race are, at best, Big Government Light.
There’s the Romney who endorsed and signed into law a universal health care program in Massachusetts that requires residents to buy health insurance if they don’t already have it, or pay a fine – something Obama liked so much he worked that concept into his own national ObamaCare plan.
There’s the Newt Gingrich who was a lobbyist for much-hated federal housing agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There’s the Rick Santorum who supported the “Bridge to Nowhere” pork barrel project in Alaska. There’s the Rick Perry who favors having Texas taxpayers finance the education of the children of illegal immigrants. The list – and examples – goes on and on, proving once again that Republicans today are truly not a Libertarian party.
So what does define someone as “conservative?” Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, was all over the morning talk shows today, and while he doesn’t plan to endorse any of the GOP nominees, he liked to repeat that his party needs to unite around whoever gets the nomination and present a strong front against President Obama, who he said has hurt the country by too much government spending.
It’s a familiar refrain from Republicans like Branstad these days, but curiously he was a lot more silent during the Bush years, when President George W. Bush allowed the budget deficit to soar, put the cost of two wars on a government credit card, proposed and got enacted into law a massively expensive health care bill to have the government finance prescription drugs for seniors, and bailed out banks that had made lousy mortgage decisions through his TARP program. I guess when a Democratic president spends wildly, it’s pretty bad, but when a fellow Republican does, it’s a lot more tolerable.
Conservatives – if they can ever figure out whether they like or dislike government – have to be the cheapest dates in town. Candidates with as much big government history as a Gingrich or Santorum can take them to McDonald’s for a quick burger and wow, those conservatives are swooning in love. They forget that a real date would have taken them to a fancier restaurant, then to a movie, then out for coffee or drinks afterwards, and even bought them roses.
That’s why I think the most fascinating presidential campaign since 1964 could be in the making if the party selected Ron Paul — who is, after all, running second in Iowa, if nowhere else. Give the voters a super-sharp contrast between a genuine believer in a large, activist federal government – as Lyndon Johnson was in 1964 – against a Libertarian conservative who wants the government eradicated from top to bottom, as Goldwater did.
Back then, voters wanted the government, not the cuts. Who knows how much has changed in the past 48 years?
But I do think it’s fascinating that the high levels of enthusiasm that so many young people showed for Barack Obama in 2008 seems to have soured … and possibly been transferred to Paul. It’s certainly not, I think, because Paul has a lot of charisma, as Obama does, or that Paul sounds inspirational on the campaign trail – not even close.
I think it’s his message of a true Libertarian assault on big government. Could we be about to witness a remarkable generational change?
Otherwise, if GOP voters ignore Paul and instead pick one of the Big Government Light candidates as their nominee, we could be in for some fascinating slogans this fall, like “I Won’t Spend Quite as Much as Obama,” “Tax Cuts, Yes; Spending Cuts, well um….” and my favorite, “I’ll Cut Any Program that Doesn’t have a Big Lobbyist Firm Behind It.”
Like I said, conservatives are cheap dates. And it’s also why my advice to the GOP is: give folks a choice. A real one.
How badly could it hurt?
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.