|28 per cent of voters in the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucus said that the ‘war in Iraq’ was the most important issue out of seven choices [EPA]|
Washington, DC – If 2008 turnout and a recent Des Moines Register poll give an accurate picture of what would happen if the Iowa Republican presidential caucus were held today, that would indicate that the addition of 13,111 new peace voters by January 3 could carry the Iowa caucus for Ron Paul.
I claim the following:
1. It is plausible that this result could come to pass, and therefore the attempt to bring it about is a winnable fight. The number of potential voters who need to be moved is “relatively small”, and while victory would require some 13,000 peace voters to behave differently than they have behaved in the past, the rare absence of a contested Democratic presidential caucus, combined with the unhappiness of peace voters about the war in Afghanistan, the failure of Washington to significantly cut military spending, and the prospect of US-Israeli military confrontation with Iran create ideal conditions for mobilising peace voters to behave differently than they have behaved in the past.
2. If this project were successful, the benefits to the majority of Americans who oppose current war and military spending policies would be significant. It would alter the national political narrative, shift debate inside the Republican Party on peace and military spending issues, disrupt national Republican efforts to attack President Obama “from the right” on “national security issues”, create more space in national media for Republican peace voices, speed the end of the war in Afghanistan, increase the likelihood of significant cuts to military spending and the closing of foreign military bases, and make a US-Israeli war with Iran less likely.
3. The relative political, financial and opportunity costs of the effort would be relatively small. Furthermore, the political costs, small to begin with, can be significantly mitigated to the extent that “nontraditional Republican” peace advocates organise and propagandise for a Paul vote in Iowa independently of the Paul campaign.
If these three claims are correct, then the progressive political case for this project is strong, and irrational objections to the project – those not based on likely benefits and likely costs – can be safely dismissed.
1. It is plausible that this project could be successful, and therefore the attempt to bring it about is a winnable fight.
The 2008 Republican presidential caucus in Iowa attracted the participation of 119,188 voters. A greater number of people are likely to participate this year, both because of the growth of the voting age population and because there is no contested race on the Democratic side. But since our purpose here is simply to get a sense of the rough magnitude of the numbers involved, let’s suppose that if the election were held today, 119,188 people would participate.
On October 30, the Des Moines Register published the results of a poll of respondents judged “likely” to participate in the Republican caucus in January. Herman Cain was the first choice of 23 per cent; Mitt Romney was the first choice of 22 per cent; Ron Paul was the first choice of 12 per cent.
If 2012 turnout were like 2008 turnout, then these percentages would represent the following number of voters: Herman Cain, 27,413 voters; Mitt Romney, 26,221 voters; Ron Paul, 14,303 voters.
According to these numbers, if an additional 13,111 Iowa peace voters could be mobilised to vote for Ron Paul, then Ron Paul would win with 27,414 votes, or 20.7 per cent of the vote.
Where might we find 13,111 peace voters who ordinarily might not participate in a Republican presidential caucus? One place to look would be people who participated in a contested Democratic presidential caucus in the past, when there was one. In 2008, some 239,000 people participated in the Democratic presidential caucus in Iowa. As it stands, these 239,000 people will face no Democratic presidential contest on January 3. If a mere five per cent of these folks – many of whom identify as “political independents” – could be induced to vote for Ron Paul in the Republican caucus, that would provide 13,111 peace voters.
Is that plausible? On December 31, 2007 – just before the 2008 caucus – the Des Moines Register published a poll of likely Democratic caucusgoers. Respondents were asked to pick the most important issue from seven choices in deciding their candidate for president. 28 per cent – the largest group – chose “war in Iraq”. Thus, more than five times as many people voting in the 2008 Democratic caucus named the war as their top issue as need to show up to carry the 2012 caucus for Ron Paul.
There is no doubt that war and peace issues are less salient now, relative to economic issues. On the other hand, potential voters who (for example) would like Washington to enact a major jobs bill don’t have an obvious way to register that sentiment in the presidential caucus. The most salient distinction from a progressive point of view among higher-polling candidates in the Republican presidential caucus is that one guy is against endless war and the other higher-polling candidates are for it.
The question here is whether enough people might move if there were a concerted push to do so. A few months ago, the idea of “#occupying” hundreds of American cities was utopian. Now it is commonplace. Under the right conditions, people move in sufficient numbers to change history.
2. If this project were successful, the benefits to the majority of Americans who oppose current war and military spending policies would be significant.
A key reason that Washington doesn’t represent public opinion on issues of war and peace is that the national Republican Party doesn’t represent Republican public opinion on issues of war and peace. In general, there is typically a significant gap on the Democratic side. But on the Republican side, it’s a canyon.
In August, Rasmussen reported that 43 per cent of Republicans supported withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan within a year, while 42 per cent opposed setting a firm timetable for withdrawal.
A few months earlier, the House voted on an amendment that would have required the President to establish a timetable for withdrawal. The amendment did not specify what the timetable had to be. It just said that there had to be one.
Twenty-six Republicans voted for the amendment. Two hundred and seven Republicans voted no.
In other words, among Republicans generally, 42 per cent opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal. Among Republicans in the House, 89 per cent opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal.
On October 21, President Obama announced that the US would comply with the agreement to withdraw all US forces from Iraq by December 31. The announcement was immediately denounced by Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Buck McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
But according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published on November 6, nearly six in 10 Republicans supported Obama’s decision.
In the United States, we don’t have political parties in the Western European sense. Party platforms mean almost nothing. Political conventions don’t really set policy. The principal way you challenge national party policy is that you run candidates who oppose that policy. And the most powerful way to do that is a serious presidential campaign.
In addition, what happens in political campaigns has a powerful effect on reporting in dominant news media. If prominent politicians say something is an issue, then prominent news media treat it as an issue. If no politicians are talking about it, then there is likely to be little press coverage of the issue. If Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucus, and even more if that victory is perceived to be the result of a peace vote, that will shape national press coverage. That story is “man bites dog”.
A key reason that prominent national Republican leaders are so “hawkish” on military issues, even though most Republican voters aren’t that invested in bombing, invading and occupying other people’s countries, is that national Republicans have perceived it to be a winning card to accuse Democrats of being “weak” on “national security.” But the more Ron Paul prospers in the Republican primaries, the more that “winning card” is damaged, because you can’t get far saying “Republicans” are “strong on defence” if there is an open rupture in the Republican Party on whether the US should be constantly bombing and invading and occupying other people’s countries.
We saw again in 2008-2010 that even when Republicans are in the minority, they have significant influence over national policy, especially foreign policy. This is partly because of the anti-democratic procedures and method of election of the Senate, but even more so because 1) national Democratic leaders are constantly looking over their shoulders for the faintest whiff of charges from the neocon right that they are “soft” on “national security”, buttressed crucially by the fact that 2) dominant national media give a huge megaphone to the McCain-Graham neocon “hawk” Republican faction, even when they do not represent the majority of elected Republicans, as when they advocated for the US to bomb Libya.
A successful movement to convert the US from being a Sparta of endless war and empire to a normal country that primarily uses its military to defend its own borders must have a serious strategy to confront and disrupt the Republican pro-war monolith, regardless of how many Democrats get elected.
3. The political, financial and opportunity costs of the effort would be relatively small.
The Iowa caucus is in less than two months. If Ron Paul doesn’t make his mark in the early primaries and caucuses, he will likely disappear from most mainstream press coverage (much more so than is the case now.) It’s much easier for an insurgent candidate to make his or her mark in the smaller early primary and caucus states. There is a window of opportunity in the next few months. The time horizon is short, thus the opportunity cost of this project is small. Either Ron Paul wins big early on, which will draw many more people into the insurgency and have a snowball effect, or his campaign is likely to largely disappear from the political landscape, and most people will move on to other projects.
From the point of view of the 13,111 new peace voters we must mobilise in Iowa, the cost of participation is small. On January 3rd, you go to the caucus near your house, you register as a Republican, you vote, you go home. What else were you going to do that night that’s more important?
Perhaps some people might see it as a big personal sacrifice to register as a Republican. Really? For a chance to change history? When you think of the sacrifices others have made for peace – being assassinated, imprisoned for years, beaten, fired, it seems like a speck of dust to me.
Some may say: I can’t vote for Ron Paul, even though I agree with him on peace issues, because I don’t agree with him on X.
Let’s distinguish between two cases: either you see it as an issue of ideological cooties, or you see it as an issue of actions and probable consequences.
If you see it as an issue of ideological cooties, then of course you can’t do it. But most people who vote don’t think and act this way. They think in terms of actions and probable consequences.
So for example, in 2008, I vigorously supported Obama, even though he was bad on Afghanistan, bad on Pakistan, horrible on Palestine. Why? Because among the “serious candidates”, he was better on Iraq, better on Iran, better on Venezuela. And there wasn’t any “serious” candidate who was good on Afghanistan or Pakistan and certainly not Palestine, but the other serious candidates weren’t as good or were perfectly awful on Iraq, Iran and Venezuela. One set of issues was in play; the other set wasn’t. Of course, the reality has turned out to be significantly different from the promises – as it generally does. But this doesn’t change the calculation going forward: it’s still a question of likely outcomes, in an enterprise that has huge effects and takes relatively little effort to influence at the margin.
The 2012 Republican primaries and caucuses present the opportunity for a new political calculation. Because the Fall is one thing, and the Spring is another. The Republican contest presents the opportunity for a free hit on the Empire and endless war. Even if you are 99.9 per cent sure that you will vote for Obama in November, why bother voting for him in the Spring, when he is running unopposed? Why participate in a Syrian election, when you could participate in a contested primary with real consequences?
But there is another objection that could be raised which is not the cootie objection, but is an objection about actions and probable consequences.
For example, Ron Paul wants to abolish the Federal Reserve – the US central bank – and replace its money-making authority – a key tool of economic policy management for boosting employment during recessions – with a return to the gold standard. This is an extremely horrible idea. This proposal is so far outside the mainstream of elite opinion that I do not think there is a serious threat that it will ever be enacted. Nonetheless, it’s a bad thing for society for terrible ideas to get more currency, and so I freely concede that it is potentially an objective cost of supporting Ron Paul that it might have a small effect of legitimising this horrible idea.
And of course, you could (and of course people do) make a similar argument with respect to other issues: Ron Paul is bad on abortion rights, for example.
But weighing likely costs and benefits, I see this as a slam dunk. Because all of the Republicans are awful on abortion rights. And they are all awful on economic policy from the point of view of working people. And they are all awful on labour rights. (Ron Paul, at least, thinks the government should leave gay people alone and opposes the monstrous “war on drugs”, a major reason the US leads the world in incarceration, and a big drag on our economy.) So I see little evidence that supporting Ron Paul in the Republican primaries and caucuses is likely to move debate in a bad way on these issues – on the issues where Ron Paul is bad, it’s a wash compared to the other leading Republican candidates. Just like with Obama in 2008: it was a wash on Afghanistan and Pakistan and Palestine. And Spring is one thing, and Fall another.
Moreover, whatever these small negative effects may be, people can mitigate them by organising autonomously.
Suppose, for example, that you decide to put a Ron Paul sign in your yard, or a Ron Paul button on your coat. The easy and convenient thing to do would be to get these things from the Ron Paul campaign for free. But then, maybe, somebody sees the Ron Paul sign in your yard, and thinks to himself, “Gee, I thought Ron Paul’s ideas about the Fed were extreme, but I see a lot of Ron Paul signs around, maybe his ideas about the Fed are not so extreme”. (Let me stress that I agree 100 per cent with Ron Paul that the Fed should be more transparent and accountable to Congress, should come clean about who it lent money to during the Wall Street meltdown, why and how much, and should be regularly audited.)
So, you could do something else. You could make your own sign. For example, your sign could say: “Ron Paul for Peace”. Everyone who sees that sign will understand exactly what you are doing. You’re not supporting Ron Paul because you agree with his desire to abolish the Fed. You’re supporting Ron Paul because you want to end the monstrous wars.
Now, as an individual, maybe this is a bit of a pain, compared to getting campaign stuff for free. But if people organise collectively, it is not that much of a pain.
And these considerations apply even more strongly to those of you – you know who you are – who have some disposable income and wealth to deploy for peace.
So, you could donate X dollars to the Ron Paul campaign. And maybe the campaign uses your X dollars to talk about peace. But maybe the campaign uses your X dollars to talk about ending the Fed.
So maybe you and your peace friends should get together and spend your money by yourselves. And maybe, if you and your friends have significant resources, you should set up an independent committee, as currently allowed by election law.
An independent committee could run TV ads in Iowa, talking about the bloated military budget, talking about the human devastation caused by endless war, the number of veterans suffering from PTSD, the long-term cost of veterans’ healthcare that will grow if we don’t get our troops out of Afghanistan now. How warmongering with Iran is going to jack up the price of gasoline for everyone’s car. How we could cut the military budget and return the money to taxpayers by closing military bases in Japan and Europe, thereby boosting our domestic economy and putting Americans back to work.
Dollars spent educating the public about these issues in a context where they’re paying attention and can take action would be dollars well spent, regardless of the outcome on election day.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.