Rep. Ron Paul’s surge in Iowa has triggered a theoretical question for his rivals this week: given his foreign policy views, would they be willing to support him over President Obama if he were the nominee? Newt Gingrich said “no,” Mitt Romney said “yes.” But it is also a kind of an intriguing gut check question for conservatives on how they balance foreign and domestic policy. Having thought about it over the last few days and debated it on Twitter for a bit last night, I’ve determined that I’d very begrudgingly back Obama in such a matchup.
Now, if we were just to look at what the candidates stand for on paper, I’d be much more inclined to support Paul over Obama. I’m not only much closer to Paul on domestic issues than to Obama, I’m probably closer to him than any other GOP candidate. And this goes beyond fiscal policy. Having somewhat of a libertarian streak, Paul’s opposition to the drug war is actually a point in his favor as far as I’m concerned. But if we move out of the realm of a person’s stances and into the reality of what a candidate can realistically accomplish as president, the calculus starts to change. The reason is that presidents have a lot more latitude on foreign policy than on domestic policy.
During his decades in Congress, Paul has voted against a lot of bad legislation and sponsored other bills that had no chance of passage. But he hasn’t been able to see his ideas enacted. Despite what he says on the campaign trail, a President Paul wouldn’t be able to cut $1 trillion from the budget in his first year in office, because Congress would never allow it. It’s true that he’d veto a lot of bad stuff. The problem is, though vetoing everything would have been an effective strategy to limit the growth of government 100 years ago, these days, shrinking government requires the passage of actual legislation to scale back entitlements. As a member of the House, Paul opposed Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget because it didn’t go far enough. But there’s no chance that more sweeping reforms would ever get to his desk as president.
On the flip side, if Obama were reelected, he would be in a lot weaker position politically than he was in 2009. Even if Republicans don’t retake the Senate, Obama wouldn’t have a filibuster-proof majority or near filibuster-proof majority, as he did for his first two years in office, when his major legislation passed. Also, the president’s party typically loses a lot of seats in the sixth year of a presidency, so Republicans would, historically speaking, be in a position to gain more seats in 2014, making Obama a lame duck. On a net basis, Paul would still be better than Obama on the spending front, but my point is that the gap between the two of them would narrow when you consider what they’d actually be able to accomplish. Especially, because it’s hard to see Paul being able to make much needed long-term reforms.
There are two other arguments that I think are the strongest in Paul’s favor. One is that he would drastically curb the regulatory state relative to Obama and the other is that he’d support the repeal of Obamacare. These are both significant, and come close to tipping the scales toward Paul.
But then there’s the problem of executive competence. Paul’s political experience has been limited to serving in Congress – he’s never been in an executive position. When he wasn’t in Congress, he ran a newsletter business you may have heard something about. His defenders argue that though those newsletters printed racist material for a number of years under his name, he never wrote or read the newsletters, and doesn’t know who authored any of the racist content. This charitable interpretation suggests a massive amount of disorganization in a small enterprise Paul ran, which had just 11 employees. Managing the presidency is, shall we say, a bit more daunting of a task. On top of this, add the age factor. At 77 years old on Inauguration Day 2013, Paul would be the same age in first year in office as Ronald Reagan was in his final year of office. In terms of actual running of the executive branch, Paul’s presidency would be a debacle, one that would utterly discredit free market ideas for a generation by having them associated with incompetence. With the gains Democrats would make in 2014 and 2016, they’d likely not only have the votes to reinstate Obamacare, but probably enact something far worse.
So then we get to foreign policy. Obviously, if you agree with Paul’s non-interventionist views, it makes sense to back him. But if, like me, you find Paul’s ideas dangerous, then as bad as he is, Obama is preferable. Despite the many problems I have with Obama on foreign policy, he has continued many of President Bush’s counterterrorism policies and did prove willing to order the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the drone attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki. At the end of the day, Obama wants to be politically popular and so there are some limits to how far off the reservation he’d veer on foreign policy.
Paul, however, is a conviction politician who would roll back counterterrorism policies that have kept America safe since 9/11. He opposed the raid that killed bin Laden and the action against Awlaki. Given his views on “blowback,” Paul would abandon America’s military presence and engagement in the rest of the world. He wouldn’t do anything to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, effectively giving them a green light to accelerate their program while he’s president. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as America’s withdrawal from world affairs would be a signal to any tyrant or would be tyrant that it’s open season.
This political “Sophie’s Choice” between Obama and Paul isn’t a decision conservatives will face, given that no matter what happens in Iowa, Paul has no real chance of winning the GOP nomination. But it is an interesting exercise – and one that really illuminates Paul’s flaws.