Postmortem on the Marketing of Ron Paul (Part 1)

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June 18, 2008

A falling tide lowers all boats. It also exposes the hills, valleys, and mud of the ocean floor. In a similar way, the Democratic and Republican primaries represented an ebb tide for freedom. It was all bottom-fishing. Consequently, the impact of the Ron Paul campaign can be more readily attributed to the abysmally low standing of his competitors than to Ron Paul's 'standing tall' for libertarian values. This may be a bitter pill for some of us to swallow, but before we become too agitated, let's take a deep breath and give the campaign a second look.

Why Bother with This Article?

Early last summer (2007), I began to have concerns about the Ron Paul campaign. I already knew Ron Paul was not a consistent advocate of liberty, but I also knew he was the best thing the duopoly parties were going to offer up to the American booboisie. What triggered my concern was the nearly messianic tone of some libertarian websites. If you've ever read medieval accounts of saints' lives in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (yes, it's time for hagiography), you get my drift. At one point, I expected to hear of miracles worked by the hem of Dr. Paul's sport coat. Or maybe wholesale conversions effected by the consumption of Mrs. Paul's golden-crusted pies. I was naturally disappointed that not a single corn or flour tortilla bearing the face of Ron Paul went up for sale on eBay.

Upon noting the campaign's shortcomings, I approached some of the established libertarian venues. I proposed a mild critique of Paul's positions and approach. In particular, I referred to the official website, Ron Paul 2008 Hope for America. The goal? To nudge the good doctor into improving his message. I believed it would enable him to pick up more supporters on the left side of the political spectrum. The response I got was 'no.' The reaction wasn't as emphatic as Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein F'hrer! Nonetheless, it was clear that no dialog was permitted--only praise-filled monologues. It made me wonder: Were Paul's supporters really that fragile?

So what's a mother to do? I didn't want to sulk in my basement and become as negative as Annie Wilkes in the Steven King film, Misery. So I just shut up and waited to see what happened. Oh, and just to get it out of the way, I am not a Ron Paul-hater. Furthermore, I am not a tentacle of the (mommy, I'm scared) Kochtopussy or an escaped traitor from the Ninth Circle of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy. I affixed bumper-stickers to my car. My wife was snubbed by lefties for wearing a Ron Paul T-shirt. More recently at a libertarian event, I even persuaded Dr. Paul to resurrect the value of a Federal Reserve Note in my wallet by placing his signature on it. I guess that makes it a third-class relic according to the Paul idolaters, right? In addition, my wife and I donated $700 (in three doses) to his campaign. To top it off, we even registered as Republicans to vote in the California primary--and we haven't voted in years. That was a significant bit of backsliding for a couple of private-property anarchists. Our rationalization? The war. We saw that it was rapidly moving the country toward despotism at a fast clip, and we lost our heads. Our next task is to remove the 'Rs' from in front of our names. Then we'll complete a pagan penance to the goddess Eris for our sins. What would be appropriate? Getting a Republican haircut? Wearing a 'power tie'? Asking my wife to do something similar? Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

Anyway, I held my tongue until I saw a glimmer of sanity. Early in 2008, other columnists and bloggers began asking why voters in the New Hampshire primary selected John McCain as the anti-war candidate. More recently, Jim Bovard posted Ron Paul's Good News, which received 41 responses at Antiwar.com. In one of my comments there, I raised the issue of Paul's central-office campaign strategy and its public communications. Many of the responses were thoughtful; some were accusations from angry activists suggesting that I had betrayed Dr. Paul. Those blog entries triggered this essay. The point? I believe that Ron Paul's paid, 'professional,' centrally managed campaign staffers (not the decentralized volunteers) would have done a better job if they had not been shielded from an internal critique by libertarians. Furthermore, the central campaign's choice of target audience and its communications (especially the website and ads) were severely flawed. As a result, the official campaign staff actually diminished Dr. Paul's support by up to half of its potential. In contrast to the centrally managed campaign, Dr. Paul himself and his many decentralized volunteers were successful precisely because they frequently abandoned the flawed targeting, positioning, and communication of the central campaign.

Market-Positioning Basics

Professionals in the marketing business make use of 'positioning' to define a client's offerings to the public. Positioning helps to develop a clear message about the nature of a product or service. It also identifies the best target markets and shows how the product is different from its competitors in terms of benefits and features. Once determined, a market-positioning statement is used to shape all of the public communications about the product or service. The central Paul campaign used the following vehicles to deliver its message of antiwar right-wing populism: candidate debates, Paul's speeches and interviews, press releases, the website, and paid advertisements. Furthermore, the central campaign had total control over the last three of these vehicles, but those were the ones that displayed the greatest weakness. In contrast, Ron Paul and his decentralized followers--on the streets, Youtube clips, blimps, and at local Meetups--were successful precisely because they broke out of the right-wing straitjacket and flawed communications of the central campaign.

A Shaky Platform of Right-Wing Populism

To his credit, Ron Paul fought the good fight on some key issues. He opposed the war in Iraq , the drug war, surveillance, debt, inflation, the Federal Reserve's currency manipulations, and the Bush administration's violations of civil liberties and legal principles such as habeas corpus. On other issues, such as abortion and immigration, libertarians continue to disagree (although Murray Rothbard and Walter Block have tipped the balance away from Dr. Paul). On schooling and subsidies to families, he violated libertarian principles, and the way he expressed himself on some issues severely undercut an otherwise correct stance.

As a result, there were enough problems with Paul's platform to disappoint straight-up libertarians--not to mention people who simply could not overlook its contradictions. Let's examine just a few. They will demonstrate that by embracing the right-wing-populist corner of the political spectrum, Paul and his campaign made a strategic blunder. First, it limited his appeal to one segment of society--the one with which Paul and his staff were personally most familiar and comfortable. Second, it blunted his appeal to libertarians. Third, it alienated crossover support from liberal progressives. The progressives, in particular, opposed the war in Iraq and were looking desperately for an alternative to the Democrats, who had cynically betrayed them after the 2006 election.

Immigration Control vs. Surveillance. On one hand, Paul said he'd do 'whatever it takes to control entry into this country'--pretty scary when you think about it. On the other hand, he said 'we must stop the move toward a national ID card system.' Like soup and a sandwich, can you really have one without the other? And can we build a mountain-range-sized boondoggle on the Mexican border while curbing government spending? If only 28 miles of 'virtual' border fence costs up to $67 million (and it's already a failure), the full 700 miles adds up to $1.7 billion. We've already learned that government estimates are pure fantasy. Operation Iraqi Freedom (sic), for example, will cost 45 times more than the original $50 billion estimate by the director of the Office of Management and Budget. So let's assume that the gold-plated immigration fence will cost $76.5 billion just to build. Never mind the bureaucracy that will sprout around it and suck up even more cash as the years roll by. Consequently, Paul's position as a thrifty, anti-surveillance candidate did not add up, and voters noted this weakness.

Subsidies to Favored Industries and Lifestyles. Libertarians have long opposed the corrosive effect of favors granted to selected industries and transfer payments made to individuals. It goes to the heart of libertarianism and ethics in general. But at his website, Paul advocated a $3,000-per-child tax credit for K-12 schooling with the Family Education Freedom Act. Who makes up the difference? He also sponsored H.R. 1059, which grants fulltime elementary and secondary school teachers a $3,000 yearly tax credit. Why favor one industry at the expense of others? Don't these measures merely shift the tax burden away from parents and industries that serve them and place the burden on single, childless, and gay people (not to mention other industries)? This kind of tax-shifting only props up the entitlement mentality shared by far too many parents and eroded Paul's claim to support free markets and oppose taxes and debts.

War Victims as Minorities. Ron Paul stood out among Republicans as the anti-war candidate--especially at the debates. His website, however, betrayed remarkable insensitivity to the plight of Iraqi civilians. It addressed the war in two places: War and Foreign Policy and Iraq. Concern was shown exclusively for the 3,000 (now over 4,000) dead U.S. soldiers and their more numerous wounded comrades. Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the civilian victims. They were'by far'more deserving of our sympathy. Iraqis already had endured U.S.-backed sanctions that killed more than 500,000 children as of 1996. That's when Madeleine Albright said it was 'worth it' to correspondent Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes. The sanctions continued along with constant bombing runs. These destroyed even more infrastructure and cost the lives of tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of additional civilians until the outbreak of the second war in 2003. Since then, up to 1.2 million more civilians have been eradicated. Why were they ignored? A message of commiseration would have boosted Ron Paul's appeal far more than mentioning his ability to deliver American babies. This oversight was the worst failure of the Paul campaign. An invocation of these victims would have acted as a powerful emotional hook, but it was abandoned along the roadside like so many of the corpses in Iraq . Was it because Iraqi victims are a 'minority' for which right-wing populists feel no sympathy?

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.