Romney has much to gain from a deal with Ron Paul

Paul could aid Romney's attempt to win over sceptical conservatives.

We have now entered the stage of the presidential election season in which reporters are getting bored. They have started playing a game called Find the Gaffe.

Here's how you play: When a candidate speaks publicly, pay attention to every sentence, phrase and clause that could be used against him by the opposing campaign.

For instance: Last week, President Barack Obama was explaining why the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 per cent in May, thus raising fears that the recovery is stalling and talk of a dip into another recession. His conclusion was that the public sector has seen significant job loss while the private sector has shown incremental gains. "The private sector is doing fine," he said.


"Are you kidding?" said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The private sector is not doing fine. "Did he see the job numbers that came out last week?"

Mitt Romney rejected the idea increasing the size of government by creating more public-sector jobs:

"He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Fire the beloved firemen! Blammo!

"I would suggest [Romney]'s living on a different planet if he thinks that's a prescription for a stronger economy," said David Axelrod, the president's senior political adviser.

And on it goes. It's enough to make you forget there are other people, other candidates, involved in the election.

You don't hear much about third parties inside or outside the US, but they exist. They are tiny compared to Republicans and Democrats yet they can be game-changers by pulling votes from one of the other candidates. The Green Party's Ralph Nader is perhaps the most famous example. In 2000, he peeled enough Florida votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush the win.

Gary Johnson is another. He's the former Republican governor of New Mexico and current nominee for the Libertarian Party. He couldn't gain entry into an over-stuffed roster of GOP candidates, because, well, except for fiscal matters, Johnson isn't much of a Republican: He's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. He supports the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. But! He does want to slash the federal government's annual budget by $1 trillion. For this and (hopefully) other reasons, the Libertarian Party tapped him last month.

When it was clear he wasn't going anywhere as a Republican, Johnson launched a bid for the Libertarian Party's nomination. That meant notifying the Secretary of State of each state in the union that he'd no longer pursue the GOP's nomination. In Michigan, he missed the deadline for withdrawal by three minutes, thus violating a law that bars candidates who lose primaries from switching parties so they can run in the general election.

As of now, Johnson won't appear on the ballot. That's why the Libertarian Party of Michigan is poised to file a lawsuit next week alleging that Republicans in Michigan are reading the law too narrowly (three minutes!) in order to keep Johnson off that state's presidential ballot. The reason, they say, is that Romney fears a libertarian candidate will siphon off votes in a swing state where the margin of victory is likely to be slim. They might be right.


Meanwhile, another libertarian has set off a firestorm by endorsing the candidacy of Mitt Romney. That would be US Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of Ron Paul. The endorsement came on Fox News when Rand Paul called for greater "kinship between our families." That was kinda weird but kinda weirder was that Rand's announcement occurred while Dad Paul was technically still running for president. The Revolution was not pleased.

But unlike Obama's saying the private sector is doing fine and unlike Romney's saying the American people want fewer firefighters, Rand's endorsement wasn't a gaffe.

Ron Paul has a history of breaking from GOP ranks when he believes the party is going in the wrong direction. He did it in 1988 when he ran on the Libertarian Party ticket (as Johnson is now) against the Republican Party's Anointed One, George H.W. Bush. This time, it's an inside fight where Paul has captured gads of delegates in caucus states even though he didn't come close to winning the popular vote in those states. With the delegates, Paul hopes to influence the party from its libertarian flank, though no one is sure how he plans to do that. More certain is that Paul has much to bargain with and Rand's endorsement may be a signal that Dad is ready to deal.

Romney, for his part, stands to gain a lot from an association with Paul. For one thing, Romney continues to struggle with conservatives. He can't sway independent voters without getting hammered by conservatives sceptical of his bona fides. No one, however, doubts Paul's conservatism. For another, Romney does not inspire voters, even Republicans. Paul, on the contrary, has built a voracious following.

Time will tell, of course, and the national convention is still a long way off. Meanwhile, it's good reminder that sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe, except when it isn't.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: 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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.