Some Republicans are angry at Ron Paul, the libertarian presidential candidate, for his forthright stance at the Republican debate earlier this week. When George W. Bush repeatedly asserts unpopular opinions in the face of withering criticism, it’s seen as a sign of strength and resolve. But when Paul asserted unpopular opinions in a debate, his remarks became the grounds for derision and threats. Paul suggested that the United States’ actions in the Middle East—and in Iraq in particular—might have motivated Bin Laden and the 9/11 attackers. Rudy Giuliani immediately jumped on Paul, demanding that he withdraw the comment. Now one GOP official is circulating a petition within the party to remove Paul from future debates. This is silly. Here’s why:
1) Paul’s argument is actually a GOP talking point: Whenever the president, Dick Cheney, or John McCain wants to argue that terrorists will come to America if we leave Iraq too early, they point us to Bin Laden’s words as proof of their point. That’s what Paul was doing when he made his comment about 9/11. “Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us?” he said. “They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years.” Here’s just one instance, from 1996, in which Bin Laden in one of his declarations of war said exactly what Paul claims: “More than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression (sanctions) imposed on Iraq and its people. The children of Iraq are our children. You, the USA, together with the Saudi regime, are responsible for the shedding of the blood of these innocent children. Due to all of that, whatever treaty you have with our country is now null and void.”
2) The GOP is not supposed to be the party for sniveling ninnies: The recent Fox debate demonstrated that candidates look better when they face tough questions from either the moderators or other candidates. Whatever the merits of Giuliani’s response to Paul, it was good political theater. Rudy looked strong and commanding. This helps him, and it helps the party. Even Nixon understood that it’s the tough questions, not the softballs, that improve a candidate’s standing with voters. So why would Republicans want to yank off stage the guy who is such a great foil? (A corollary: This is one of the reasons Democrats are silly to turn down debates hosted by Fox. They’re missing a chance to look confident and full of conviction in front of tough questioning.)
3) It’s a retreat into the bubble: President Bush has been rightly criticized for not listening to opposing viewpoints or for not himself posing uncomfortable questions that challenge the reigning orthodoxy. So why would the GOP want to make a show of putting its fingers in its ears by trying to erase Paul?
4) It’s giving away the high ground: For the last 15 years, Republicans have criticized Democrats for not inviting pro-life Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey to speak at the party’s 1992 convention for fear he would muddy the party’s pro-choice message. Their own tent, Republicans boasted, was big and open: That’s why famous pro-choicers like Colin Powell and Giuliani appeared at Republican conventions in prime time even though the party platform is thoroughly pro-life. If they punish Paul for saying a few inconvenient things in public, Republicans can no longer make that claim. They look like the party of the tiny tent.