Ron Paul's gift


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On September 14, 2001, Ron Paul spoke on the issue of congressional authorization for the president to use force to address the problem of terrorism. His statement has been posted. [The posted text omits the opening words of his statement, which were "I rise in support of this resolution," the resolution being the Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force" (see especially Section 2 (a). A video of the congressman's remarks is available from C-Span.]

I do not number myself among the constitutionalists who have seen Mr. Paul as a kind of spokesman for their views; I am not a constitutionalist at all. But I do sympathize with their views to the extent that they imagine that they are advocating a roll-back of state power and intrusiveness.

Dr. Paul wound up voting with the rest of the House (420-1) to grant powers to the president that the Constitution does not authorize them to grant. To be sure, he tried to make the best of a bad situation, but I think it is now clear that his vote was miscast.

Ron Paul had an opportunity to make the constitutional case against centralizing war powers in the executive. He also had the opportunity to make the free-market case against war. And he had the opportunity to make the Christian case against bombing civilians. He had that opportunity not in the course of a one-minute speech on the floor of the House. Rather, he had it in the press. Had he cast a dissenting vote, he might have attracted the interest of some members of the press to seek him out for longer answers, as they are now doing with Rep. Barbara Lee, the lone dissenter. There is, of course, no certainty that he would have had that opportunity; the press — now speaking with virtually one voice, and that the voice of a state's propaganda engine — is free to ignore any development they wish, a freedom they have exercised on more than one occasion.

Still, Dr. Paul passed up those opportunities and became, alas, just another member of the Supreme Soviet, applauding the Maximum Leader until his hands were sore, lest someone note that he was the first to stop clapping.

Let me make a few disclaimers: I will not suggest that Dr. Paul voted to "rally behind our president" out of fear of losing his seat in 2002. I will not suggest that he was reluctant to stand alone. I am merely saying that he missed an interesting opportunity.

The cost of his vote was pretty much the same cost incurred whenever men wishing to be on the side of the angels make a compromise: the side of the angels had to go unrepresented. It was clear that the House was going to "rally behind our president" with or without him. Neither the president nor the House needed a vote from Texas's 14th Congressional District to expand executive power and pave the way for the intrusions into the liberties of freeborn men that will necessarily and predictably follow.

I say again: That side did not need him. That side already had 420 voices. It was the side of the angels that needed him; it had none.

In the end, only one member of Congress voted against the measure — the far-left, dictatorship-loving congresswoman from California's 9th district, where lie the socialist fever-swamps of Oakland and Berkeley. Now the anti-war sentiment can be easily demonized as anti-American; now the anti-war sentiment can be easily demonized as deranged and self-marginalized.

Of course, all that could have been done easily in any case and most likely would have been done. But the demonization would have been stripped of some of its plausibility. Rush Limbaugh and the Washington Times and the rest of the Right can now attack anti-war thinking without having to confront the fact that a conservative, a man who wants to lower taxes, who objects to encroachments on the Constitution, disagreed with them. What we used to call the "patriot" movement would have had to think twice, or maybe just a moment, before working itself into a fit of frenzied war fever and bluster.

And thinking twice — even thinking just a moment longer — is what the patriot movement needs very badly at this time. Men who would have shaken their fists at a call for encroachments on liberty requested by Janet Reno will now docilely — in some cases eagerly — accept the same call from John Ashcroft; indeed, measures that a Republican House rejected when offered by the Clinton administration will now pass easily in a Republican House. Men who would have been skeptical of the maneuverings of a Bill Clinton or an Al Gore will accept preposterous plans to "rid the world of evil" when voiced by a president none of them ever trusted while he was still a candidate.

By no means must it be thought that Ron Paul's lone constitutional dissent would have turned the tide of American opinion. But it would have given his natural constituency a reason to pause in their thinking. In passing up his opportunity, he has deprived his natural allies of their opportunity to wonder a moment about the rights and wrongs of the situation. Instead he has given the extremist left a monopoly on anti-war sentiment in the Congress.

That was his gift to America.

September 19, 2001

Published in 2001 by WTM Enterprises.

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