Republican Leadership Conference 2011: Pragmatism vs. principle.

Republican Leadership Conference 2011: Pragmatism vs. principle.

Republican Leadership Conference 2011: Pragmatism vs. principle.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 17 2011 10:45 PM

Crazy Popular, or Just Crazy?

In New Orleans, Republicans debate the best way to sell their message and defeat Obama.

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Former Speaker Newt Gingrich offered the most actual ideas. Gingrich had a five-point plan for everything from taxes to energy. He would eliminate the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, considered the nation's most liberal, allow businesses to expense all the new equipment they would buy and replace the EPA with the ESA: the "environmental solutions agency." Leaving aside for the moment whether any of his ideas are plausible or good, he does distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican field. He has spent time thinking (maybe that vacation was actually worth it). He has a notion of how to proceed, and some idea of how the presidency actually works. He is not timid about laying out what he wants to do with some specificity. This should be encouraged in every presidential candidate. Most are timid, waddling onstage in a Michelin Man suit of bromides and poll-tested phrases.

When you're running against an incumbent, this is safe politics. House Republicans, now in the majority, proved this in the last election. Too much specificity gives people details to be unhappy about. Herman Cain knows this very well. He promises common-sense solutions, but his policy prescriptions are not deep dish. However, he does have lots of pleasing aphorisms and sayings that you can imagine would look nice on one of those motivational posters. Comparing himself, as he often does, to the aerodynamically challenged bumble bee that "didn't get the memo" that it wasn't supposed to be able to fly, he says: "I didn't get the memo that I'm not supposed to run."


And then there is Rep. Ron Paul. A few minutes before taking the stage, the empty spaces in the ballroom were filled up with young, sign-wielding followers. When Cain said an attack on Israel should be considered an attack on the United States, the isolationist Paul forces booed. The establishment Republicans in seats stood to cheer and drown them out. Knowing the Paul was due to speak next, the men in blazers and women with elaborate pins trickled out of the VIP section.

The hall, which had already been pretty lively, erupted into a roar. "End the Fed!" was the first loud chant, but it was hard to keep track as the message of personal freedom and liberty excited his crowd. (They applaud with a practiced enthusiasm that could pulverize a walnut). Paul was a roving abolitionist, singling out for elimination government regulations on milk, hemp, drugs, and abortion. He got a little wound up. Federal bureaucrats even "get involved in education," he said. "The TSA tells you what your kids can do. "

The VIP section grew very still while he talked about drug legalization and a highly limited U.S. foreign policy. When he cited Reagan to support his argument that U.S. foreign policy should be based on the simple rule that we wouldn't do anything to another country we wouldn't want done to us, it was almost too much for them. 

After two days filled with talk of freedom, Paul seemed like the pure form of the argument. Quoting from Samuel Adams, he defined his cause and followers as the "irate tireless minority willing to start the brushfires of freedom in the minds of man." Then he noted with a wry smile that "others who are running for leadership are starting to use our language." As if to prove his point, when DeMint took the stage he couldn't help but comment on Paul's speech. "I used to think you were crazy, Ron," he said. "But I'm starting to think I'm a little crazy myself."

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