Monday, May 21, 2007

Politics ain't beanbag, Dr. Paul

Politics is the art of getting other people to do what you want them to do. It's not an impartial search for truth, not a debating society. The dustup between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani at last week's debate exemplifies this point.

I don't think Ron Paul is a "truther," and I doubt that Rudy Giuliani thinks that either. Michelle Malkin seems to be trying establish that, but she has a way to go yet. But to try to make a point as subtle as the one that Ron Paul was going for, on that stage, in front of that national audience, with others on the stage with him who are seriously in the race for the Presidency, was not good political thinking. Giuliani displayed his political skill by seeing that Paul had left himself open for a smackdown, then seized the moment (as a skilled politician will), re-phrased what Paul had said, and condemned the re-phrased point. It went over big.

Paul was trying to say something about years of policy. It was too subtle, and left him open for attack. This has nothing to do with whether I agree with what he was saying. Debates like these are not the place for subtlety and nuance, nor for a lot of history, or even worse, historical perspective. (It's too bad, but it's the fact. The audience sees what's before it.) Perspective is for observers with a viewpoint outside the action. If a candidate can see the big strategic picture as well as the immediate tactical one, and can switch viewpoints fast enough to react accordingly, he's a rare bird indeed, and is likely to be successful. Participants in a candidates' debate have to see things from inside the action. What matters is what we do now, today.

Personally, I think the Western oil powers made their big mistake by permitting the Gulf countries to take over the oil production facilities back in the 1960's and '70's. Those facilities were built by Western companies. The governments of Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands (and others, it's late, I'm just thinking of BP, all the US companies, and Shell, I'm sure there were others) should have defended the property of their corporate citizens, owned by their individual citizens, the shareholders. If those oil fields were still in possession of those who had developed them, there would be a lot less loose money around the Middle East than there is now. Loose money financing jihad. But that's history.

To return to my main point: this moment in the debate proved that Paul is not capable of being President of the US. He's out of his depth. A goldfish in a shark tank. To be successful, a politician has to be be able to capture a crowd, sway the mob, seize the moment, persuade people to do what he wants them to do. All this goes along with the arm-twisting in smoke-filled rooms and other behind the scenes activity. It would be wonderful if we could make public policy out of reasoned debate, without all this other stuff, and I would like to have a pony, too.

Ron Paul is still repeating the Libertarian Party platform points from before 9-11. I broke with the party after that event, as did others. I still like much of the program; but national security must come first. Which is why the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill is such a disaster. More on that later.

Update: Cathy Young says: "Paul has no chance of winning the nomination; but he certainly has a good chance to enrich the debates." I would like to agree. But for that to happen, the others will need to treat him more as a contributor than as a competitor, which is unlikely to happen, given that the debates and indeed the campaign as a whole are not a series of in-depth exploratory discussions of policy, but more like series of soundbites in which each candidate says "Vote for me, don't vote for him!" (Or her as the case may be.) Giuliani was trying to eliminate Paul as a competitor. To knock his marble out of the ring. Since he has no chance at the nomination anyway, it might seem overkill to go after him so fiercely, but it's the default action.

Also: the press expects each candidate to have an articulated position on all issues, any deviation from which will be condemned as flip-flopping. Granting respect to positions that differ from those already staked out would be seen as weakness. That is, there is next-to-no chance that a candidate will change his mind about something, especially not because of something another candidate says in a debate. Maybe not the best way to run an election, but it's what we have right now.

Just to clarify: I come not to praise demagoguery. My point is that a leader must know enough about leading to defend his flank, as Paul did not, and to strike when an opportunity is offered, as Giuliani did.

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