“Legalize the Constitution,” says Jesse Benton, looking at me like I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about.
Benton is director of communications for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, and he’s doing the best he can with the hand he’s been dealt. A well-spoken, tall, and stocky man of 30, he’s worked for Grover Norquist’s outfit, Americans for Tax Reform, and the American Conservative Union. Now he’s fielding 700 emails and more than 40 voicemails a day from disgruntled Republicans, anti-war leftists hoping to give the rest of the Republicans ulcers, and independent young netizens delivering the dollars. On November 5, Paul raised a record $4.2 million in a single day, the largest online fundraising haul in history. On December 16, Paul broke his own record, raking in over $5.5 million.
Speaking about the campaign, Benton comes across as a Joe Trippi of the Right, master of independent media and the grassroots. But he knows Paul won’t win, and the work remains, in his words, “a passion project.”
“I was an econ major, and we actually had a real Chicagoan in our econ department,” Benton says. “I guess I’ve become more of an Austrian now.” I wonder if he’s remembering I work at the Cato Institute, or if he’s like this with everyone. With their many references to free-market economic heavyweights like Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and anarchocapitalist intellectual Murray Rothbard, Benton and his colleagues are probably the only campaign staff in history that’s too economically literate for its own good.
Let justice be done, though the heavens fall, as they say. “I got to play with some big boys on the insider conservative movement and got to see how that works, and how, unfortunately, a lot of the Beltway conservatives don’t practice what they preach,” Benton explains. “And I guess that’s brought me to this point right now, working for Ron Paul, who really wants to change how the game’s played.”
It’s not clear whether Paul is trying to change the game, or only trying to make a point. As president, he’d be so hesitant to use executive power that he’d arguably be abdicating the oath of office, and yet he sets such lofty goals for government reformation that he’d need almost unlimited power to implement them.
Paul, an obstetrician and 10-term Republican congressman from Texas, hasn’t been shy about his beliefs. He openly supports the withdrawal of American troops not only from Iraq, but from every deployment abroad, including South Korea, Japan, and Germany. He wants to dismantle the FBI and CIA. He dreams of eliminating the Federal Reserve and fiat money, and returning the U.S. to the gold standard.
He doesn’t stand a chance of becoming president or accomplishing any of the above, but Paul is the only Republican candidate talking seriously about drastically changing the direction of the country, which makes his lack of self-regard all the more frustrating.
It’s also what makes Paul so morally forceful, and what draws young free-marketeers like Benton to work for him. “I’d been an admirer of Dr. Paul for many years,” Benton says. When Benton took his communications expertise private, the Paul campaign became one of his clients. “They needed some press work getting off the ground when they were a two-person operation,” and now they’ve got dozens of staffers in states around the country.
Beside the vacillating, poll-driven mentality of most other candidates, Paul’s devotion to principle is clarifying, but it shows the importance of setting priorities and making compromises. Benton knows Paul connects most on Iraq, but he allows Paul to spend most of his time talking about issues most people don’t care about or don’t understand. And that allows the other candidates to get away without taking Paul as seriously as they should.
It doesn’t help that Paul’s supporters seem to share little more than the common belief that the Iraq war was a bad idea. “I think our core support comes from the Old Right, the Robert Taft-Barry Goldwater Old Right,” Benton says. “Then you’ve got the libertarians in there, libertarian-Republicans, the disgruntled Republicans…and the general anti-war vote.”
It’s a motley crew, with precious little glue to hold it together, so paradoxically, foreign policy is the most divisive issue facing the campaign. Paul practices what he preaches, and he takes his arguments to their logical conclusions, which is often a problem.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the war on terror. How would Paul fight it? “Issue a Letter of Mark [or rather, Marque] and Reprisal,” Benton says, referring to the practice of enlisting privateers. The U.S. hasn’t issued such letters since its troubles with the Barbary Pirates in 1803, and in the stink of the latest scandal with private security contractors like Blackwater USA, it’s unlikely to get started again.
What about bin Laden and Zawahiri themselves? “Put a ransom on their heads.”
We have, haven’t we? How’s that working out for us? “I don’t know exactly what we do,” Benton shoots back, “but I’ll tell you what we don’t do. We don’t continue to give [Pakistani president Pervez] Musharraf, a military dictator, $1.5 billion a year. We have given this guy $11 billion over seven years.”
The Pakistanis helped create the Taliban to strengthen their hand in Afghanistan — after we promised to sell them fighter planes, and then stiffed them. Benton’s consistency is admirable, but it’s hard to imagine a foreign policy without carrots, either.
“When we get involved in these situations, we create negative unintended consequences, invariably,” Benton continues. “On its face, everything seems legitimate, but where does it end?”
“I think if someone attacked our domestic borders, we’d use nuclear weapons,” Benton says, though he immediately cuts himself off. “Oh, now I’m getting in talking about nuclear weapons, it’s gonna be Barry Goldwater all over.”
He laughs, knowing he’s gone a little off the rails.
“The market can always do better,” he says. “Ultimately the market is the best way to provide things to society.” Including national security? “Sure. Absolutely. That’s the ideal,” but he adds, “You have to combine your idealism with pragmatism of the time, and what’s available, and what you have.”
“I evolved from not knowing anything at all to thinking I wanted social justice to thinking that social justice is a myth really,” Benton explains, “and the way to make sure most people have the most is to unleash the creativity of the human spirit, in free markets and minimal government.”
It’s definitely resonating, at least with people who spend their leisure time on YouTube. “We’ve got about 39,000 subscribers now, we’re something like the 30th most-subscribed YouTube channel,” Benton says proudly. Many of the best and most-viewed videos are made by grassroots people, though as he says, “they’re not exactly what we would create as a campaign.”
It’s hard, after all, to organize a group of people who don’t believe in being organized.
Ideological purism of any kind can be an enticing thing. In its own illusory way, it helps to make sense of a maddeningly complex and imperfect world. But as Benton is learning, a politician is more than an iconoclast: Leaders are obligated to do their part to make a more perfect union. As Ron Paul understands better than most, that often means keeping a cool head, sticking to principles, and standing still under fire. But at some point, the country is going to have start asking itself hard questions about foreign policy, entitlement programs, and all the rest, and that’s not going to happen until a smart candidate picks a few big fights he can win.
Paul has to find a way focus his message. That’s Jesse Benton’s job, and he’s got his work cut out for him.
–David Donadio is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl