After listening to so many Republican debates that I can no longer count them, one thing became clear: There were almost no significant policy distinctions between the candidates in the domestic arena. All were basically minor differences, although often inflated for political purposes. What set the candidates apart were qualities of personality, electability and experience, not the issues.
Much of the bickering concerned who would best follow through on their conservative principles, something which is of course mere speculation until they are elected.
Only in the area of foreign affairs was there a substantive policy difference, and in that area one candidate — Ron Paul — stood out. He was the sole isolationist (or even relative isolationist) on the stage. Every other candidate was considerably firmer than the incumbent president in his or her support for a strong American defense, not to mention for a steadfast opposition to a nuclear Iran. Paul was by himself on the opposite side, further to the left on national defense than Barack Obama.
So it was Paul’s foreign policy views that were repudiated by Iowa Republicans on Tuesday.
And they were roundly repudiated — 79 to 21 by the vote percentages.
Paul was defeated by Rick Santorum, a foreign policy hawk who called Paul’s views “disgusting,” and by Mitt Romney, whose opinions are similar to Santorum’s (as were all the other candidates’ in the Iowa caucus).
Paul sought to place a positive spin on his third place finish in a “victory” speech, but it rang hollow as his son, Sen. Rand Paul, standing behind him, conspicuously stopped applauding when his father’s words turned to foreign policy. The senator had the look of someone who wished he were someplace else.
I sense that this was Paul’s high water mark in the campaign, and he will henceforward be something of an asterisk. It’s ironic because his economic views have increasingly become mainstream over the years and have been adopted, to one extent or another, by other Republican candidates.
So Paul has had his value, though like so many “true believers” he has trouble integrating the orthodoxies of his libertarian ideology with the realities of the world. This is particularly odd since he is old enough to have grown up in the shadow of World War II and Adolf Hitler, and then of the evils of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Such things do not just “go away” if you are a “good libertarian.” Paul is in a sense the anti-Reagan – peace not through strength but through ideological purity.
I have been attacked by some because I harp too much on Paul — and they have a point. But I do have my reasons, and an important one is, having come from the left, I am suspicious of that ideological purity. It’s an all-too-human yearning for simple solutions. And when solutions get too simple, it’s been my experience that people have that odd habit of getting in the way.
So as the Republican nomination narrows down to a precious few, as the song goes, I hope we give all the candidates a close and thorough look. Because they are going to be dealing with a mighty complex world. A little flexibility might be helpful.