"I don't think Ron Paul represents the mainstream," says Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich, another of the Texas congressman's opponents in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, uses stronger terms, declaring, "Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American."
As the results in Iowa suggest, the "mainstream" to which Romney and Gingrich refer is not defined by voters; it is the range of opinion deemed acceptable by leaders of the two major political parties. The mainstream has brought us a national debt the size of the national economy, a bloated yet overextended military that has strayed far from its mission of defending the country, and a lawless executive branch that usurps legislative powers and violates civil liberties.
If that is what the mainstream represents, it is no place for decent Americans who support smaller government. Romney and Gingrich may think they are discrediting Paul, but they are actually recommending him as the only candidate who breaks decisively with the status quo.
Although all of the Republican candidates pay lip service to fiscal restraint, Paul is the only one to propose actual spending cuts, as opposed to smaller increases. His plan would balance the federal budget by 2015. By contrast, Romney aims to "put us on a path to a balanced budget," while Gingrich vaguely promises to "balance the budget — by growing the economy, controlling spending, implementing money saving reforms, and replacing destructive policies and regulatory agencies with new approaches."
The fiscal incontinence of the Republicans not named Paul is vividly illustrated by their attitude toward defense spending: More is always better, and any cuts, even if they are only reductions in projected increases, recklessly endanger national security. Romney assails "the Obama administration's irresponsible defense cuts," which would leave the Pentagon's budget bigger in a decade than it is today. The idea of going any further — say, reducing military spending to the amount appropriated in 2007, when the country was hardly helpless against its adversaries — is anathema to Romney and Gingrich.
In this atmosphere, Paul's insistence that "there's a difference between military spending and defense spending" is a breath of fresh air, and so are his warnings about the consequences of failing to make that distinction. Although his opponents try to isolate him by calling him an "isolationist," his views are more in tune with public opinion than theirs.
Paul supported military action against al-Qaida and its Taliban allies following the Sept. 11 attacks, but he opposed the occupation of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and the air war against Libya, saying these operations were not grounded in national defense. Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans agree with his judgment about Afghanistan and Iraq, while up to three-fifths questioned the intervention in Libya. Are all of these people "outside the mainstream" as well?
In addition to its role in military adventures, an elastic view of national security is the main justification for the steady expansion of presidential power, which has accelerated in response to Islamic terrorism. The New York Times recently asked the presidential candidates, "Which executive powers, if any, claimed and exercised by the Bush and/or Obama administrations were unconstitutional?" Paul cited unauthorized wars, warrantless wiretaps, torture, indefinite detention of terrorism suspects and the assassination of people the president unilaterally identifies as enemies. He said the excesses of George W. Bush's counterterrorism policies were "among the worst abuses of executive authority in the nation's history," adding that Bush's successor has been worse in some respects.
None of the other candidates could think of a single instance in which Bush or Obama exceeded his authority in the name of fighting terrorism or protecting national security. Romney's chief example of unconstitutional executive action was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is actually an example of unconstitutional legislative action. Gingrich said the problem is too little executive power, thanks to interference by the Supreme Court. If that is the mainstream, I want out.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.