When an Establishment conservative like Mitt Romney wins the CPAC straw poll, it is an opening salvo in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. But when Ron Paul wins, well, there is nothing to see here.
"Be careful not to read too much—or much at all—into these results," warned the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "Paul's supporters are loyal and loud but not, ultimately, that large a group as proven by the fact that he did not win a single primary or caucus in 2008."
The Christian Science Monitor recounted this bit of snark from the blog Little Green Footballs: "There's never been a poll Ron Paul couldn't win, unless you count a presidential primary race."[CPAC: Ron Paul wins CPAC straw poll - ends Romney's CPAC domination, By Jimmy Orr, February 20, 2010]
It's true: straw polls are unscientific. Paul's victory doesn't mean he'll be taking the oath of office come January 20, 2013 anymore than Romney's three consecutive CPAC triumphs translated into him winning the presidency—or even the Republican nomination.
But straw polls do test organizational strength and grassroots enthusiasm. CPAC, as its organizers like to point out, the nation's largest gathering of conservative activists. It says something that Ron Paul was able to attract substantially more support than Sarah Palin, Mike Pence, Newt Gingrich, and a slew of other Beltway right favorites. It may not portend much for the 2012 primaries, but it does show where the youthful intensity and enthusiasm lie.
Paul's first-place showing wasn't the only sign that what some are calling the "Alternative Right" is coming into its own. Paul-inspired organizations like the Campaign for Liberty are displaying increasing professionalism and effectiveness. The movement is even shedding its cult of personality aspect, developing other respected leaders alongside Ron Paul. At this point, Paul's son Rand has to be favored to win the Republican senatorial nomination in Kentucky, where he'd be at least even to win the general election.
The Paulites' relationship with mainstream conservatives—who remain enamored of the Iraq war and the Bush Doctrine, if not always former President George W. Bush himself—is still contentious. Paul's win was booed by many CPAC attendees. But increasingly, dissident conservatives feel like a real presence rather than a rump or a remnant.
All of this is good news in a political culture where positive stories are hard to come by.
But as conservatives are fond of saying, ideas have consequences. The ideas that animate the movement started by Ron Paul are mostly libertarian. One of the consequences is that patriotic immigration reform may not be as salient to a Paulian alternative right.
Pat Buchanan launched three presidential bids in which he championed three broadly paleoconservative causes: a restrained post-Cold War foreign policy; an approach to trade that was skeptical of the benefits of a hyperglobalized economy; and patriotic immigration reform. Buchananite ideas, his supporters hoped and his critics feared, had the potential to appeal to many more people than the 3 million who cast ballots for Buchanan during his most successful presidential campaign.
After the disappointment of Buchanan's Reform Party bid, the Buchanan brigades were to live on in the pages of older publications like Chronicles and such new ones as The American Conservative (for which I worked for nearly three years).
Even during the heady days of the Buchanan campaign, there were harbingers of a possible split between non-interventionists and immigration restrictionists. The libertarians involved in the paleo "New Fusionist" bargain originally invented by the much-missed Murray Rothbard began to have qualms about supporting a presidential candidate who opposed free trade and advocated economic nationalism. Before his death in 1995, Rothbard worried that Buchanan's trade views were pushing him in a more statist direction.
But once paleos had for the most part quit the political scene—there was no obvious successor to Buchanan—for intellectual enterprises, the split seemed to subside. Reports of contentious John Randolph Club meetings notwithstanding, paleocons and paleolibertarians were publishing together in The American Conservative during the run-up to the Iraq war.
Ron Paul brought paleos back into politics again. The Good Doctor's position on immigration isn't perfect but it isn't bad (the same is true of his son Rand). In fact, Paul's immigration views during the 2008 primaries were more sensible and durable than most of the GOP frontrunners. He is a believer in sovereignty and borders. Nevertheless, the National Question does not move him much and immigration was far less important to Paul's campaign than Buchanan's.
Consequently, under Paul's would-be successors things could get rather worse. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is talked about as a possible Paulite candidate in the 2012 primaries. His frugal record as governor and his constitutionalist platform today are remarkable. But his position on immigration is dreadful.
Johnson's "OUR America Initiative" includes expanding legal immigration on its "Three Point Plan" for national prosperity. In 2000, Johnson gave an interview to Playboy in which he promiscuously uttered almost every immigration enthusiast canard:
PLAYBOY: As governor of a border state, what is your view of the immigration issue?
JOHNSON: I don't think Easterners recognize that the Hispanics who immigrate are great people, great citizens. They care about their families like other Americans care about their families. They're living in poverty in Mexico and can come to the United States and do a lot better.
PLAYBOY: By–according to some–taking away jobs.
JOHNSON: They work the lowest-paying jobs, which is a huge step up from where they come from. And they are taking jobs that other Americans don't necessarily want. They're hardworking people who are taking jobs that others don't want. That's the reality.
PLAYBOY: Would you open the borders and make it easier to immigrate legally?
JOHNSON: My vision of the border with Mexico is that a truck from the United States going into Mexico and a truck coming from Mexico into the United States will pass each other at the border going 60 miles an hour. Yes, we should have open borders. It will help enormously with the drug issue, too, by the way. One of the huge raps on Mexico is that it is a drug supplier, that it's the drug corridor. But there wouldn't be drugs coming in illegally from Mexico if there weren't the demand in the United States. We have a militarized border with Mexico, and it's a shame. It doesn't work very well, either. Mexican mules get paid a king's ransom to carry marijuana or cocaine across the border, but they are just mules. If they get caught, they're the ones who get locked up, not the drug lords. One out of eight gets caught. Whoever's paying them south of the border knows that equation and understands the risk.
PLAYBOY: In California, there was a backlash against illegal immigrants. Voters passed a proposition that would have denied them medical and other services.
JOHNSON: It wouldn't be a problem if they were legal, so the process to make them legal should be easier.
PLAYBOY: Many Americans fear the flood of immigrants that would follow.
JOHNSON: Again, they would come over and take jobs that we don't want. They would become taxpayers. They're just pursuing dreams—the same dreams we all have. They work hard. What's wrong with that?
"Yes, we should have open borders." If this were an idiosyncrasy of Johnson's, it wouldn't matter much. One could easily justify a protest vote for an antiwar Republican while disagreeing on other important issues. But what if Johnson's immigration expansionism catches on?
At a Campaign for Liberty roundtable discussion on the war on terror at CPAC, panelist Jacob Hornberger proposed an alternative to a foreign policy based on regime change: allowing all victims of tyranny to flee their oppressive home countries and come to the United States. If the mostly young audience objected, it didn't show in the raucous applause that followed Hornberger's immigration line. (By contrast, the crowd was clearly divided when another panelist called America a "secular republic" and said religion had no place in politics).
To be sure, a Ron Paul libertarian is far less likely to support open borders than most other self-described libertarians. And the Paul movement has been good for exposing young people to authentic conservatism, including arguments for immigration restriction.
But there has been a divide between paleoconservatives primarily interested in immigration and those primarily interested in foreign policy.
Foreign policy, even more than the Federal Reserve, draws people to Paulian forms of conservatism and libertarianism. While non-interventionism has gained a following among a growing number of young people on the right, it has gained little traction among the millions who still identify with the mainstream conservative movement. By contrast, patriotic immigration reform has appealed to rank-and-file Republicans who detest George W. Bush's amnesty proposals but like his wars just fine.
This has left some paleoconservatives feeling uneasy. "As the immigration-reduction movement has sunk deeper roots into the conservative movement and begun to acquire a mass-electoral base, it has also picked up some of the political style and impulses of the prowar Right," wrote my old boss Scott McConnell in an American Conservative review of Mark Krikorian's The New Case Against Immigration. "Talk-radio hosts who are anti-immigrant are especially anti-Muslim and noisy enthusiasts for bombing other countries."[Assimilating to the GOP, September 22, 2008 ]
Many leading voices on the antiwar right, such as Justin Raimondo and American Conservative publisher Ron Unz, never agreed with restrictionist arguments on immigration. Others, like McConnell and Lew Rockwell, began to find those arguments irrelevant in the context of the GOP's bellicose foreign policy.
Politically, this split came to a head during the 2006 midterm elections: Should the paleo movement support the congressional Republicans who stopped amnesty for illegal immigrants? Or should it jettison them because of their near-unanimous support the war?
As it turned out, the tactical question didn't matter very much. Amnesty proved too unpopular to pass even under a Democratic Congress. And congressional Democrats were too wimpish to do much of anything about the war, dabbling in nonbinding resolutions and standing by meekly as George W. Bush commenced the surge.
But the political question will come up again. Do paleos support a peace candidate like Gary Johnson who favors open borders? Or do they back someone like Tom Tancredo, who is a stalwart on immigration but speaks casually of bombing Mecca?
In the long term, this split is bad for the Alternative Right. Mass immigration will frustrate the Paulites' efforts to shrink government by expanding the welfare state's beneficiaries and swelling the ranks of big-government voters. Unguarded borders at home will encourage reckless searches abroad for monsters to destroy. And romantic attitudinizing about the glories of immigration will limit the liberty movement's electoral appeal to the young men who have always been the best potential audience for libertarians.
The consequences will be equally bad for immigration patriots. For one thing, it will tie them to a GOP Establishment that still has much to learn about immigration beyond the clichés that "amnesty is bad" and "illegal immigration is illegal." Republicans are better at voting down bad ideas than enacting good ones.
Worse, as McConnell warns, "By becoming part and parcel of the Republican Right, the immigration-reform movement risks becoming absorbed by the Right's jingoism, turning into another means of expressing American superiority over foreigners, people to be kept out at home and bombed abroad."
The immigration patriots who don't become Republican regulars will find themselves tempted into what I believe is the moral and political dead end of white nationalism.
The original paleo blend of anti-statism, particularism, and belief in a transcendent moral order avoided dangerous extremes. It abjured both authoritarianism and libertinism, universalist flim-flam and bigotry.
The growth of the Ron Paul movement is an exciting new opportunity. But on some things, the paleos were right from the beginning.