Commentary: Ron Paul is the great contrarian

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

Does Ron Paul matter?

The Texas congressman doesn’t have a chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination. In fact, it’s looking like no one does against Mitt Romney.

Yet Paul seems to be enjoying a certain momentum. The contrarian libertarian placed a respectable third in the Iowa caucus, garnering 21 percent of the vote, just behind Romney and Rick Santorum, who each polled just under 25 percent of the vote.

In New Hampshire, Paul continued to improve. He still finished well behind Romney, taking 23 percent of the vote compared to Romney’s 39 percent, but he took second and looked more like a serious candidate than the fringe also-ran he was in 2008.

It won’t be enough to upset the GOP’s anointed candidate — not in this election cycle. However long Paul remains in the race, he can only hope to hold on as a protest candidate.

Nevertheless, he plays the role to the hilt. Whether he wants to be or not, Ron Paul is this election cycle’s candidate for hope and change.

More persuasively than any other candidate, Paul has presented himself as the candidate who would stand up to corruption at the heart of the American political system. Given to fulminating against the Federal Reserve System, the Drug War, interventionist foreign policy, and any number of other points of consensus in Washington, he clearly doesn’t fit well with the Republican establishment — and doesn’t care. He’s got a motley but growing movement of supporters — young idealists, discontented Middle Americans, many in the tea party movement — and what draws them to him is his incorruptibility.

This at a time when money is poised to corrupt electoral politics as never before. This is the first presidential primary season of the age of the new so-called super PACs. These lightly regulated committees — which can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, unions and other groups — have already accounted for nearly half of all campaign spending. Made legal by virtue of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the groups allow the rich to make an end run around the old campaign finance rules.

To make matters worse, the super PACs have been behind brutal negative ad campaigns that have damaged all the Republican candidates.

Paul, who is distinguished among the Republican field for having amassed his war chest in small contributions from plain folks, is the kind of candidate who gives people hope that our electoral politics can change for the better. That big money will not always dominate, and that the people can unseat the establishment favorites if they muster enough votes. That every vote counts more than every corporate contribution or massive donation by an individual.

The problem with Paul is that his contrarianism often goes too far even for those who sympathize with him. In Paul’s worldview, the U.S. isn’t merely more hesitant to be engaged globally; it is nearly disengaged. He wants the U.S. to pull out of the United Nations.

Paul also aspires to eliminate no fewer than five cabinet departments within the federal government. And the Federal Reserve System to boot. Not reform, mind you. Extirpate. To enact even half of Paul’s to-do list would turn this country on its head.

He has also denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on the grounds that it violated the Constitution. With opinions like this, Paul shows symptoms of that malady in which an ideology — in his case, libertarianism — sometimes disables the faculty of common sense.

Long after Mitt Romney is nominated as the GOP candidate, and after the outcome of a Romney vs. Obama matchup is known, will come the analysis of this presidential campaign. We’ll know who funneled the money to achieve the result, and what spoils they reaped in reward. And it won’t make any of us feel good about the health of our democracy.

If Romney fails to unseat Obama, look for the Ron Paul insurgency within the GOP to grow. And where that could take the party is anybody’s guess.

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