Why Ron Paul could still rain on Romney's parade

The libertarian candidate who won't go quietly.

Rick Santorum is gone. So is Newt Gingrich. Everything looked ready for a general election match-up between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Just one thing, though. Ron Paul. Most of us forgot he was still running, few of us realized he was pulling off a kind of quite coup, and no one seems to know what it means.

Paul is the libertarian candidate whose Old Right platforms were all the rage in 1939. Romney, Santorum or Gingrich have beaten him in all the primaries and caucuses. Even so, he and his small army of supporters, which by some estimates has doubled since his 2008 run for the White House, is slowly staking up delegates against frontrunner Romney in states that held nonbinding caucuses. Over the weekend, he took Nevada and Maine. The weekend prior, he dominated delegates in Louisiana's state convention. Others include Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Alaska.

Last week, news reports came out slowly and then more frequently on what Paul was doing and why he might be doing it. Bottom line: We know how, but not why. We also know that the Republican establishment isn't taking this well. An attorney for the Republican National Committee warned Nevada that it could forfeit its spot at the national convention if Paul walks away a winner. Fox News, when it covered the RNC's threat, summed up the establishment view: Paul's "renegade campaign" hopes to "tinker with the Nevada delegate count" in order to "hijack the GOP convention."

Before I get to why he's doing it, let me explain what he's doing and how. To that end, recall that the Republican Party changed the rules of the nomination process so that delegates to the national convention are awarded proportionally instead of winner-take-all. That is, a candidate gets a percentage of the delegates (the total of which differs from state to state) depending on how much of the popular vote he received. Some states, like Florida, rejected the new rules and remained winner-take-all. In any event, in states that held primaries, a candidate either won all delegates or some, and the results were binding.

This is not the case in caucus states. The results of the popular vote were not binding. So the real work of deciding which delegates were going to represent which candidates was done at the precinct and state levels. That's where the enthusiasm and organization of Paul's campaign was superior to Romney's even though Romney's campaign is much larger and more capitalized. In Nevada, Paul took 20 of 28 delegates. In Maine, it was 22 of 25. In Louisiana, he took 111 of 150 delegates going to that state's convention. And so on.

Still, it's small beer. Romney's delegate count is 865 and he's on course to win the 1,144 needed for the nomination. For Paul, despite a superior organizing effort and huge crowds greeting him at universities and college towns, the total is a mere 93. That's a lot of effort for so little in return.

So what does it amount to? No one knows. Paul could be making a point: the neoconservatives who currently dominate the party should not alienate the party's libertarian wing. It could be a power play. If Paul captures five states, he can force a floor vote at the convention. This vote will be immediately and overwhelmingly stomped, but it might give Paul a chance to push his agenda to a bigger audience. Other than this, most say little will come of Paul's mini-coup, but some are saying time will tell. We don't know which delegates are saying they represent Romney but are secretly supporting Paul for instance. Then there are all those delegates pledged to Santorum and Gingrich. They have only suspended their campaigns. The delegates are up for grabs if they're released.

But there might be another way of looking at this. Paul is already appealing to Tea Party voters. He's also appealing to some left-of-center voters who yearn for an end to the war on terror and the war on drugs (both Paul platforms). Given this, it would be possible, maybe plausible, for Paul to represent an alternative to Romney-Obama.

If rejected at the national convention (and he surely knows he would be), Paul might redirect his support to laying the groundwork for a third party challenge. Even then, he'd be stomped. Some say the point ultimately is about the man's ideas, not the man himself. By spreading his ideas, and converting the formerly unconverted to the joys of cold-blooded Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, Paul could be making a bid for himself as a high-profile party boss.

This is politics, after all -- the art of the possible.

This post was updated at 15.30 on 7 May 2012.

Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, talks to the media at the University of Maryland on 28 March 2012. Credit: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.