The most pointedly interesting aspect of Ron Paul is, paradoxically, the broadest. Which is to say, it's the vastness of his occasionally microscopic and always idiosyncratic thinking that astounds. Which is to say, after listening to him for a while, one is left pondering: How can a man who gets so much right, also get so much so profoundly wrong?
Yesterday morning this writer's pondering came to an end, thanks to his, ah, informative appearance on "Meet the Press." Paul's simplicity of presentation, it became clear, merely reflects an astonishing failure to comprehend the complexity of history. If a man doesn't know where he's been, he cannot possibly know where he is, or how he got there. Consequently, understanding where to go next becomes, to put it mildly, problematic.
The Russert-Paul exchange over America's Civil War was perhaps the most instructive:
MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. "According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery."
REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn't have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the -- that iron, iron fist...
MR. RUSSERT: We'd still have slavery.
REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn't sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.
There were so many fantastical missteps in Paul's historical journey, one at first feels as marooned in befuddlement as Paul inarguably was. Indeed, there was far too much to bother with dissecting here, except, quickly, the principal historical point he tried making, which also just happens to profoundly conflict with his present emphasis on untainted constitutionalism.
In brief, Lincoln's war -- and by the way, he didn't "go to war"; he defended against a military assault -- was, in Lincoln's mind, precisely one over the strict adherence to constitutionalism. (The abolition of slavery was, as you know, and Mr. Paul apparently doesn't, not an original war aim.) In fact, Lincoln was engaged in precisely the opposite of what Paul accused him of -- "get[ting] rid of the original intent of the republic." And what was that intent? The absolute supremacy of constitutional rule -- meaning the peaceful deference to majority rule. If one state or geographical collection of states up and decided that things would be its minority way or the highway, then, manifestly, the republic could not endure, and what Lincoln loved and admired as the greatest experiment ever in self-rule -- constitutionalism -- would be at an end for all.
Hence the irony of Paul's constitutional assault on Lincoln's rock-solid constitutionalism. But when combined with his other historical misunderstandings of the Civil War, slavery and comparative government, such irony merely betrays a simple lack of constitutional grounding. And for a man whose nearly exclusive mantra pounds on the purity of constitutionalism and original intent, that astounds.
So does the extreme simplicity behind the idea of a great and federal republic stripped and starved of federal power, as Paul advocates. The idea that the United States could advance itself by remolding itself into the Somewhat United States -- with each of its 50 entities shooting hither and yon; some providing, say, health care and others dismissing, say, meat inspection -- well, again, the contradictions abound. And astound.
If you would like -- as Paul referred to our current course with more than merely a little legitimacy -- "soft fascism," but to the power of 50, then just deprive the one central watchdog -- the federal government -- of its power to enforce the constitutional guarantees that have flowered over time and through progressive development, not rigidity. The systematic problems we face today in the reversal of those guarantees stem from the corruption of that system's intended checks and balances, and it is therefore within the system that the problems must be forcefully addressed.
Just giving up, and reverting to an atomistic hodgepodge of regional identities and control, as was attempted in the early 1860s, would result in the effective end of America's constitutional experiment. We'll sink or swim as a nation -- and our vivisection into 50 wholly sovereign authorities would only guarantee the first.
Lincoln could see that. Ron Paul can't.