Every election season America is presented with a series of false choices. Should we launch preemptive wars against this country or that one? Should every American neighborhood live under this social policy or that one? Should a third of our income be taken away by an income tax or a national sales tax? The shared assumptions behind these questions, on the other hand, are never cast in doubt, or even raised. And anyone who wants to ask different questions or who suggests that the questions as framed exclude attractive, humane alternatives, is ipso facto excluded from mainstream discussion.
And so every four years we are treated to the same tired, predictable routine: two candidates with few disagreements on fundamentals pretend that they represent dramatically different philosophies of government.
The supposedly conservative candidate tells us about “waste” in government, and ticks off $10 million in frivolous pork-barrel projects that outrage him-the inevitable bridge-to-nowhere project, or a study of the effects of celery consumption on arresting memory loss-in order to elicit laughter and applause from partisan audiences. All right, so that’s 0.00045 percent of the federal budget dealt with; what does he propose to do with the other 99.99955 percent, in order to return our country to living within its means? Not a word. Those same three or four silly programs will be brought up all campaign long, and that’s all we’ll hear about where the candidate stands on spending. But conservatives are told that they must support these candidates, and so they do, hoping for the best. And nothing changes.
Even war doesn’t really distinguish the two parties from each other. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry voted for the Iraq war. With the exceptions of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, even the Democrats who postured as antiwar candidates for the 2008 primary elections are not especially opposed to needless wars. They typically have a laundry list of other military interventions they would support, none of which make any sense, would make our country any safer, or would do a thing to return our country to fiscal sanity. But liberals are told that they must support these candidates, and so they do, hoping for the best. And nothing changes.
A substantial portion of the conservative movement has become a parody of its former self. Once home to distinguished intellectuals and men of letters, it now tolerates and even encourages anti-intellectualism and jingoism that would have embarrassed earlier generations of conservative thinkers. There are still some good and decent conservative leaders to be found, and a portion of the grass roots has remained uncorrupted by the transformation of conservatism into just another Big Government movement. But Big Government at home and abroad seems to suit many conservative spokesmen just fine. Once in a while they will latch on to phony but conservative-sounding causes like “tax reform”-almost always a shell game in which taxes are shuffled around rather than actually reduced overall-in order to pacify the conservative base, but that’s about it.
When Republicans won a massive off-year election victory in 1994, neoconservative Bill Kristol immediately urged them not to do anything drastic but to wait until the Republicans took the White House in 1996. Well, the Republicans didn’t take the White House in 1996, so nothing ever got done. Instead, the Republican leadership urged these freshman congressmen to focus on a toothless, soporific agenda called the Contract with America that was boldly touted as a major overhaul of the federal government. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Contract with America was typical of what I have just described: no fundamental questions are ever raised, and even supposedly radical and revolutionary measures turn out to be modest and safe. In fact, the Brookings Institution in effect said that if this is what conservatives consider revolutionary, then they have basically conceded defeat.
Needless to say, I am also unimpressed by the liberal Left. Although they posture as critical thinkers, their confidence in government is inexcusably naive, based as it is on civics-textbook platitudes that bear absolutely zero resemblance to reality. Not even their position on unnecessary wars is consistent-Hillary Clinton and John Kerry both supported the Iraq war, for instance, and the major Democratic candidates in 2008 who claim to be antiwar are generally eager to invade some other country apart from Iraq. Even Howard Dean was all in favor of Bill Clinton’s intervention in Bosnia, going so far as to urge the president to take unilateral military action beyond the multilateral activity already taking place. Liberals at the grass roots, on the other hand, have been deeply alienated by the various betrayals by which a movement they once supported has made its peace with the establishment.
No wonder frustrated Americans have begun referring to our two parties as the Republicrats. And no wonder the news networks would rather focus on $400 haircuts than matters of substance. There are no matters of substance.
In late 2006, a number of friends and colleagues urged me to consider running for president. I was a reluctant candidate, not at all convinced that a sizable enough national constituency existed for a campaign based on liberty and the Constitution rather than on special-interest pandering and the distribution of loot.
Was I ever wrong.
On November 5, 2007, we set a record when we raised over $4 million online in a single day. That December 16, on the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, we broke that record by raising over $6 million. In the fourth quarter of 2007, we raised more money than any other Republican candidate. Not only is the freedom message popular, but if fund-raising ability is any indication, it is more intensely popular than any other political message.
By the end of 2007, more than twice as many Meetup groups had been formed in support of our campaign than for all the rest of the candidates in both major parties combined. I have never seen such a diverse coalition rallying to a single banner. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Greens, constitutionalists, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, antiwar activists, home-schoolers, religious conservatives, freethinkers-all were not only involved, but enthusiastically so. And despite their philosophical differences in some areas, these folks typically found, to their surprise, that they rather liked each other.
The mainstream media had no idea what to make of it, since we were breaking all the rules and yet still attracting such a varied and passionate following. I began making this a central point of my public speeches: the reason all these different groups are rallying to the same banner, I said, is that freedom has a unique power to unite us.
In case that sounds like a clich, it isn’t. It’s common sense. When we agree not to treat each other merely as means to our own selfish ends, but to respect one another as individuals with rights and goals of our own, cooperation and goodwill suddenly become possible for the first time.
My message is one of freedom and individual rights. I believe individuals have a right to life and liberty and that physical aggression should be used only defensively. We should respect each other as rational beings by trying to achieve our goals through reason and persuasion rather than threats and coercion. That, and not a desire for “economic efficiency,” is the primary moral reason for opposing government intrusions into our lives: government is force, not reason.
People seem to think I am speaking of principles foreign to the Republican tradition. But listen to the words of Robert A. Taft, who in the old days of the Republican Party was once its standard-bearer:
When I say liberty I do not simply mean what is referred to as “free enterprise.” I mean liberty of the individual to think his own thoughts and live his own life as he desires to think and to live; the liberty of the family to decide how they wish to live, what they want to eat for breakfast and for dinner, and how they wish to spend their time; liberty of a man to develop his ideas and get other people to teach those ideas, if he can convince them that they have some value to the world; liberty of every local community to decide how its children shall be educated, how its local services shall be run, and who its local leaders shall be; liberty of a man to choose his own occupation; and liberty of a man to run his own business as he thinks it ought to be run, as long as he does not interfere with the right of other people to do the same thing.
As we’ll see in a later chapter, Taft was also an opponent of needless wars and of unconstitutional presidential war-making.
This is the Republican tradition to which I belong.
Early on in my presidential campaign, people began describing my message and agenda as a “revolution.” In a way, it is, albeit a peaceful one. In a country with a political debate as restricted as ours, it is revolutionary to ask whether we need troops in 130 countries and whether the noninterventionist foreign policy recommended by our Founding Fathers might not be better. It is revolutionary to ask whether the accumulation of more and more power in Washington has been good for us. It is revolutionary to ask fundamental questions about privacy, police-state measures, taxation, social policy, and countless other matters.
This revolution, though, is not altogether new. It is a peaceful continuation of the American Revolution and the principles of our Founding Fathers: liberty, self-government, the Constitution, and a noninterventionist foreign policy. That is what they taught us, and that is what we now defend.
I was never interested in writing a campaign book as they tend to have (deservedly) short shelf lives. But the ideas I have been promoting, and which have struck such a powerful chord with so many Americans, are ideas that are overlooked and neglected because they do not fit into the template of trivial questions with which I opened this chapter. This book is an opportunity to highlight and explain them in the kind of systematic fashion that campaign speeches and presidential debates simply do not allow.
The revolution my supporters refer to will persist long after my retirement from politics. Here is my effort to given them a long-term manifesto based on ideas, and perhaps some short-term marching orders.
At the same time, I am also describing what the agenda of George W. Bush’s successor should be if we want to move toward a free society once again. Our country is facing an unprecedented financial crisis precisely because the questions our political and media establishments allow us to ask are so narrow. Whether or not politicians actually want to hear them, it has never been more important for us to begin posing significant and fundamental questions. “In all affairs,” Bertrand Russell once said, “it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” I’m not in the habit of quoting Russell, but when in American history has his sentiment been more true?