With polls predicting a comfortable second-place finish — or even a shot at first — for Ron Paul in the nation’s first GOP presidential test in Iowa, the Texas libertarian is laughing all through the cornfields, and Jewish activists are starting to worry.
Once disregarded as marginal and unimportant, Paul, a staunch opponent of American military involvements abroad, is beginning to draw attention. And while no one expects him to win the Republican nomination, his surge is seen as a problem in itself.
“Extremists embrace his anti-government views,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “so at the end, he legitimizes extreme views on U.S. aid to Israel, and he legitimizes extreme views that are not only racist and homophobic but also anti-Israeli, and at times anti-Semitic.” Foxman stressed, however, that he does not view Paul as anti-Semitic, though some of his followers are.
Despite these concerns, most — though not all — experts see no broader “Ron Paul phenomenon” taking hold in the Republican Party. Nor do they believe that an extreme form of isolationism, which includes anti-Israel sentiment, is making its way into the GOP mainstream. Paul, political analysts argue, has the right combination of enthusiasm and organization to score big in Iowa’s quirky straw-poll system for selecting a primary presidential favorite, but it won’t take him much further.
A December 22 Rasmussen poll predicted Paul would receive 20% of the votes in Iowa’s January 3 caucuses, coming in second after Mitt Romney. An Iowa State University poll published a day earlier put Paul in the lead, with 27.5% of the votes.
Paul, a congressman from Texas, has been the strongest and, at times, the only libertarian voice within the Republican Party. A physician by profession, Paul won the nickname “Dr. No,” which pretty well sums up his voting record. He has been a consistent opponent of any legislation authorizing the use of military power and views as unconstitutional federal entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, not to mention a lot of other things the federal government does. Ron Paul’s campaign did not respond to requests to interview the candidate.
While Paul’s views on domestic and international issues are a source of concern for most in the Jewish community, critics point to his writings from the 1980s and ’90s as no less of a problem. A newsletter called The Ron Paul Political Report included recurring extreme racist comments and anti-Israel rhetoric, as well as endorsement of conspiracy theories that Israel was behind the 1993 terror attack on New York’s World Trade Center. Paul’s campaign attempted to distance the candidate from his namesake publication, saying he did not write or authorize the articles in it.
Eric Dondero, a former aide to Paul, wrote on December 26 on RightWingNews website that Paul had said many times he “wishes the state of Israel did not exist at all.” Dondero said that while he did not think Ron Paul held anti-Semitic views, he is definitely “anti-Israel.”
In 2008, Paul’s run for the Republican nomination drew little attention. He came in fifth in Iowa, with 10% of the vote, and then watched his support disappear altogether as the primary process moved on to other states.
Now, with daily mentions in the press, Ron Paul’s surge has Jewish activists edgy.
“I’m not saying that he is going to win or that the GOP is adopting his views, but what he says does give legitimacy to the kind of things [Professor John] Mearsheimer says,” argues Foxman, whose group has kept Paul on their radar screens since he entered politics. Foxman is referring to the controversial 2007 book, “The Israel Lobby,” by Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, which accused the pro-Israel community of shifting U.S. foreign policy in favor of Israel against America’s interest.
In statements in recent months, Paul has made it clear that he opposes U.S. foreign aid to all countries, including Israel. He also opposes American military intervention in Iran, even if it moves forward with its plans for nuclear development, which many view as a covert nuclear weapons program, one viewed by Israel as a mortal threat. “They are not a threat to Israel,” Paul opined in a December 15 debate hosted by Fox News. “Israel has two hundred to three hundred nuclear missiles, and they can take of themselves.”
One consequence of Paul’s surge has been a war of words between Jewish Democratic and Republican partisans. The Republican Jewish Coalition refused to invite Paul to a candidates’ forum it hosted on December 7. The group’s executive director, Matt Brooks, explained that Paul was left out because he was “outside the mainstream.”
Democrats dismissed this gesture as insufficient. David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, called on the Jewish Republicans to speak out forcefully against Paul, whom he called a “clear and present danger.” Harris said he does not think Paul is just a flash in the pan. He urged Jewish Republicans to take the initiative and proactively educate voters against him.
“They are a very clever organization,” responded RJC board member Ari Fleischer. “Nothing will make them happier than seeing us waste our money on a candidate who isn’t going anywhere.” Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush, said that while Paul is a “ferocious isolationist, whose views are a disaster to Israel,” there is no chance his candidacy will go much further than Iowa.
Success in Iowa, said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, does not mean that Paul’s ideas are becoming more acceptable in the Republican Party. “His positions on foreign policy are outside the Republican mainstream,” he said. “He has a following that supports these views, but it is limited.”
But the limited nature of that following won’t matter, warned Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, once the GOP convenes its national convention next August.
Dissenting from the conventional wisdom, Beinart wrote in a December 27 article in the on-line Daily Beast, “The dominant storyline at the Republican convention will be figuring out how to appease Paul sufficiently to ensure that he doesn’t launch a third party bid. And in so doing, the GOP will legitimize its isolationist wing in a way it hasn’t since 9/11.”
While isolationism — a label often applied to Paul’s views, though one he rejects — has not seen a rise in the U.S. political landscape, polls indicate there is a growing distaste among Americans for foreign intervention. A survey published by the Pew Research Center in May, based on polling done a couple of months earlier, found that a majority of Americans, 58%, think the U.S. should “pay less attention to problems overseas,” whereas only a third believe it is “best to be active in world affairs.” Majorities in all voter groups shared this view, with moderate Democrats opposed most strongly to U.S. involvement overseas.
But it is conservative Republicans who had made the greatest shift away from internationalism. In 2004, during the Bush presidency and U.S. immersion in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a majority of conservative Republicans supported intervention in overseas affairs. However, by 2011, most had changed their views. A strong majority now believes America should focus on domestic issues.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.