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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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.