By W. James Antle III
Debating in Ronald Reagan’s shadow in Simi Valley, there were plenty of Republican presidential hopefuls willing to deviate on social issues like embryo-destructive stem-cell research, but only one dissenter on the Iraq War—ten-term Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. It’s a role Paul reprised this week in South Carolina and, with any luck, will throughout the 2008 campaign.
What’s more, Paul has even begun to get some serious media coverage—albeit with the usual condescension toward principled “longshot” candidates.
That’s still a big improvement from when Paul declared his candidacy in March. Back then, the media was focused on another Republican with heterodox Iraq views. With headlines blaring “Chuck Hagel expected to announce 2008 bid,” reporters trekked out to Omaha with the expectation that the two-term Republican senator from Nebraska would toss his hat into the ring.
Instead Hagel merely announced that he would make another announcement—later. Members of the Fourth Estate weren’t amused.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank penned a column panning the senator’s performance under the title “When No News Is Strange News.” His colleague Howard Kurtz commented, “Boy that was strange.” National Public Radio called Hagel’s press conference “March Madness.”
So the media got their Hagel for president story wrong. But subsequent coverage compounded the error by exaggerating the senator’s import to conservative critics of the war in Iraq. The Associated Press called him “one of the more forceful Republican voices in opposition to the Iraq war.” Agence France-Presse dubbed Hagel a “fierce Iraq war critic” with an “anti-war posture.”
A report in The Politico before Hagel’s bizarre hurry-up-and-wait statement claimed that “his candidacy will test whether an anti-war—and sometimes defiantly anti-Bush—contender has a viable constituency in the Republican Party.”
There’s just one problem with all this: Chuck Hagel isn’t all that anti-war.
In 2002, Hagel joined a majority of the Senate—and all but one senator in his own party—in voting for the war. Until this year, he has supported every appropriation and fulfilled every Bush administration request concerning Iraq.
At the March 12 media event in Omaha, Hagel specifically eschewed the anti-war label, saying “that to have a different position than the president’s on a war doesn’t qualify anyone to be an anti-war candidate.”
For years, Chuck Hagel has been willing to complain about the war in speeches and on the Sunday morning television talk shows. Only recently has his voting record begun to catch up.
By contrast, Paul has consistently backed up his talk with action. He voted against the war at the height of its popularity, only one of six House Republicans to do so. He has taken the politically risky—fellow Republicans might say risky and foolish—step of voting against every appropriation funding the war. He voted against a resolution saying Iraq was part of the broader war on terror. Paul has even voted for withdrawal.
In fairness, Hagel’s resolve on the war has stiffened this year. He co-sponsored with the Democrats a resolution opposing the surge, but it was non-binding. Hagel also helped hand the Bush administration a political defeat by voting to impose a withdrawal timeline. But the same legislation also funds the war, substituting constitutionally problematic micromanagement tactics for Congress’ unambiguous power of the purse.
If Paul is the stronger anti-war candidate—and his run a better barometer of the GOP’s openness to debate on Iraq—why doesn’t he tend to attract the same fawning profiles as Hagel? Maybe it has a little bit to do with their differing political outlooks.
Paul’s opposition to the Iraq conflict stems from his general libertarianism, since he agrees with Randolph Bourne that war is the health of the state. He has always opposed big government and continued to vote against expansions of Washington’s reach—long after it became unfashionable to do so within the GOP that gave us No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
In fact, Paul believes that the Constitution set up a limited federal government with enumerated powers. And he doesn’t always see the either party’s spending wish list enumerated in the text of that founding document.
Hagel has a generally conservative voting record with much to recommend it. But his independence can easily be overstated. He is critical of the administration while the cameras are running, but usually votes the party line once inside Senate chambers.
Sound familiar? Not for nothing did colleague George Neumayr designate the Nebraskan “Chuck McHagel.”
Neither man has much chance to win the Republican presidential nomination. Both are stuck at 2 percent in a recent CNN poll. Hagel has irritated the GOP base with his shtick, Paul with his consistent voting record.
Ron Paul is finally having his big media moment. But will he be forgotten again if Hagel decides on an independent run, either at the top of the ticket or as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s running mate?
Let’s hope not.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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