Postmortem on the Marketing of Ron Paul (Part 2)

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June 19, 2008

The Best of the Paul Campaign

Effective communication is a mix of theater and content, and Paul's performances in the debates usually helped the campaign immensely. Why? Because they were not under the control of his central staff. For example, Dr. Paul struck an inspiring antiwar blow in Columbia, South Carolina (May 15, 2007). There, he pointed out that terrorists are over here because we are over there. This showed his ability to feel empathy and educate the audience. When the biased moderator retaliated by asking if we 'invited' the 9-11 attacks, Paul should have stuck by his position and become even more aggressive. He should have parried the implied accusation by saying 'yes absolutely, if you mean that the policy of the U.S. government was an invitation.' Instead, he visibly back-peddled before regaining his equilibrium. Sensing weakness, Giuliani zoomed in and showed what a master of theater can do. He feigned outrage and insisted that Paul withdraw the remark. Paul again lost ground because he did not immediately stand up to Giuliani's demand by saying 'I refuse!' and then continue with his long explanation. This sluggish timing made it appear as if Giuliani had scored a point when, in fact, he hadn't. Theater, or the lack of it, plagued the Paul campaign.

Ron Paul was at his best speaking to a primarily African-American audience at Tavis Smiley's All-American Presidential Forum on September 27, 2007. In that venue, he correctly identified the heavy price inflicted on the black community (and less affluent communities in general) by the war on drugs. There is a high price being paid by those who are chewed up in the vicious prison system, by those who are killed and injured in neighborhoods plagued by cross-fire between the rival gangs created by the drug war (as my grandmother was), and by those whose property is stolen because of the artificially high price of illegal drugs. These horrors constitute an ugly stain on the faces of every DEA, FBI, and local agent of law enforcement'not to mention those in the judicial system and staffing our prisons. The people in the audience at the Smiley Presidential Forum knew'and more importantly'felt the truth of what Dr. Paul was saying about the drug war. In contrast, too many right-wing populists, such as the Lewciferians, pretend that opposition to the drug war is the concern of cosmopolitan, self-indulgent wastrels who celebrate depravity. As libertarians, however, we understand that victimless crimes are not crimes at all. They are often self-destructive choices. By criminalizing them, they become far worse tragedies that ensnare unwilling new victims among the young and old alike.

$35 Million Over the Dam

The Paul campaign pandered to right-wing populists on such matters as shifting taxes away from 'state-approved' families, subsidizing the education industry, and barring the immigration of undocumented workers. This undercut the consistency and power of the indivisible freedom message, and people detected the compromises and contradictions. In Paul's campaign, they added up to a bad case of cognitive dissonance, which compromised Paul's credibility among voters on the left and in minority communities. It made them wonder if Dr. Paul could possibly understand their concerns.

The official advertisements for the Paul campaign were a farce. We all have witnessed well crafted advertising. One blogger at Antiwar.com reminded us of the famous advertisement for the Apple Computer shown during the 1984 Superbowl. It featured a hammer-wielding heroine, who smashed Big Brother's huge TV image. It aired only once, yet it is still discussed and fondly remembered 24 years later. But what did the Ron Paul campaign deliver with its $35,000,000 budget? Totally forgettable, over-generalized, statements about patriotism with a soundtrack that made the same claims as every other Republican candidate. Oh, and he delivered babies, too.

These commercials violated a vital aspect of strong positioning because they failed to differentiate Ron Paul from his competitors. Remember: the goal of positioning is to establish a unique niche for a product or service. Only Ron Paul had the track record to match the political territory he carved out: a 100% anti-tax voting record, unrelenting opposition to the war, an understanding of the 9-11 attack as foreign policy blowback, a call to reduce our bloated military-industrial complex, and steadfast opposition to erosion of our civil liberties. The ads placed by his central campaign did not convey this. I heard no antiwar message in San Diego. In every way, they failed the standard advertising tests of (1) conveying vital information related to the product, (2) getting one's attention, and (3) being memorable and worthy of repetition. Instead, they seemed to run away (in fear?) from the good parts of Ron Paul's message as stated in the debates. Was it because the staff simply didn't get it, or were they actually against those ideas?

Ron Paul's campaign did not lack a pool of talented writers from which to draw. I personally spoke to one of the leading writers in the libertarian community. His books are filled with wit, humor, and facts. His bid to the Paul campaign, however, was rejected. So whom did they hire and why? Remember: the contribution of tested communication professionals in a campaign of this type is worth more than the best product of 100 inexperienced family members or other bargain-basement staffers. Where did the money go? And I, for one, did not make a donation so that Ron Paul could start a foundation. Where are the ethics in that?

Missed Opportunities

Here in San Diego, Paul's commercials aired exclusively on right-wing radio programs (the ones with Limbaugh, Hannity, etc.). The decision to recruit exclusively from the right side of the spectrum in this way was a big mistake. There was a huge audience waiting on the other end of the political radio dial. For example, after each Republican debate, Air America talk show host Randi Rhodes devoted half of her programming time to audio clips of Ron Paul. It was amazing! She couldn't believe her ears, and she played them over and over again in admiration. True, she stated her disagreement with some of Paul's positions, but her praise of his stance on the war and other issues was so enthusiastic that everything else paled by comparison. She even pointed out that Paul had provided remarkably intelligent responses to questions about debt, spending, and gays in the military. The audience also responded positively. Unfortunately, the Paul camp did not respond to repeated requests for interviews by Randi Rhodes' staff. Consequently, he never had a chance to tap into this ready-and-willing audience. Why?

Another failure to jump on a great opportunity was the debate at Florida Atlantic University on January 24, 2008. The candidates were allowed to pose one question to an opponent'a chance to really put them on the spot. Dr. Paul could have sounded the alarm on John McCain's many flip-flops about the war, torture, the economy, or his 'questionable conduct' during the infamous Keating Five scandal. But when Dr. Paul had the microphone and everyone's attention was riveted to his face, McCain was asked this question: What would he do with the president's Working Group on Financial Markets? The uncanny silence that followed was sheer unbelief. I could almost see the words Are you kidding? hanging in the air. Meanwhile, the audience slipped into a deep coma. Politics is theater, but instead of delivering a punch-line, Dr. Paul prescribed a sleeping pill. McCain, of course, didn't have a clue about what Paul was asking, but his evasion was smooth enough to prevent Paul from scoring a point. Was this the wooden stake that the Paul campaign would drive into the heart of a lunatic who promised to bomb, bomb, bomb'bomb, bomb Iran? And was this gaff Paul's or the campaign's?

Paul's Decentralized Volunteers

Paul's decentralized volunteers were another matter. Their road signs, blimps, Youtube clips, anthems, Meetup groups, and rallies were a lively contrast to the official campaign. I had a chance to interview a Pauluteer from Oklahoma, and he told me that his group had great difficulty getting the Paul campaign to release the email list so that they could coordinate activities before the primary. While this particular Oklahoman understood the importance of a consistent freedom message, he characterized most volunteers as (1) Christian right, (2) formerly pro-war types who had changed their minds (because the war turned south?), and (3) limited-government types. Many were characterized as 'only willing to grant as many liberties as they felt comfortable with.'

On the night of Super Tuesday, I met with 30 or 40 Paul supporters at a San Diego restaurant and had a chance to interview about half of them. Three were avowed libertarians (which doesn't mean much in San Diego as these are usually cross-dressing Republicans). The rest were energetic young people who had become active in their first political campaign. I was refreshed by this influx of bright young people to the cause of anti-statism. On the positive side, I learned that they were excited, dedicated, and had a good grasp of selected issues such as debt, taxes, and war. They were the kind of people who had created the Ron Paul rEVOLution logo with love highlighted in red. None of them, however, had put together their understanding of disparate issues into a consistent philosophy of freedom. I concluded that they lacked the ideological roots that would anchor their beliefs over a lifetime. And I'm not sure if Ron Paul is capable of supplying the missing ingredients.

The fledgling Paulians have not been exposed to Murray Rothbard's compelling non-aggression axiom and the concept of self-ownership as described in his books For a New Liberty and Ethics of Liberty. As a result, they may be unable to derive libertarian positions on many important issues. For example, I found that they were confused by dichotomies such as imperialism vs. self-defense, tax-dependent parents vs. financial responsibility, vouchers vs. educational freedom, tax-shifting vs. tax reduction, nuclear energy vs. market-supported energy, environmentalism and abuse of the commons vs. enforcement of property rights against trespass, bogus energy self-sufficiency vs. a free market in energy, protectionism vs. free trade, trade balances vs. free trade, crony capitalism vs. free competition, and the government vs. a voluntary society. In short, they appeared to be unschooled on topics that Ron Paul had not addressed.

Nonetheless, these young people are part of the future of libertarianism. They are missing their other half from the left side of the aisle, and they were not helped by those who 'protected' them from an improved campaign message. To me, this pitfall was summed up by one of my fellow anti-war protesters at the weekly vigil near my home. He was a dogmatic progressive-liberal, and he was responding to my disappointment that Ron Paul's radio commercials had not mentioned the war or the 1 million dead Iraqi casualties, only the U.S. soldiers. His answer was frighteningly perceptive: 'Maybe they knew their constituency.'

Sometimes We're Not Responsible

This brings us back to the point I made at the beginning of this essay. Political candidates'even those whose views are only partly libertarian as in the case of Ron Paul'are not to blame for every failure. Likewise, they are not responsible for every success. Ron Paul's campaign was borne aloft in a powerful back-draft of statist debacles'the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a totalitarian crackdown at home. The 72-year-old congressman from Texas was like the little boy in 'The Emperor's New Clothes' by Hans Christian Andersen, pointing out the obvious. Dubya was a certified disgrace, and most of his Republican cronies were too vain to admit it. The Democrats, knowing they were no better, kept their mouths shut. Maybe they were remembering Jimmy Carter's Afghanistan Adventure and Bill Clinton's intervention in Yugoslavia.

So where does this leave us? Candidates who employ as much libertarian rhetoric as the better Republicans and Democrats of the 1980s and 1990s now seem to shine forth as flashlights among the fireflies'and Ron Paul has been shining brighter than most. He and his supporters should congratulate themselves for doing the right thing when they did it'and for doing well what they did well. The rest'as is often the case'was just dumb luck. We can't take credit for the weather'or the ebb tide of politics.

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 34

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.