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Campaign 2012: Ron Paul's existential challenge to Washington

October 18, 2011 | 12:34 pm

Rep. Ron PaulThe basic question posed by the likes of Republicans Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry is:  "Would this person do a better job as president than Barack Obama has?"

The basic question posed by Rep. Ron Paul's candidacy is: "Why do we have a federal government?"

The policy wonk in me loves Paul (R-Texas) for this, even though I disagree with much of what he says. And in that vein, I highly recommend perusing the plan Paul released Monday for slashing federal spending by more than 25% his first year in office, including the elimination of five federal departments.

It's easy to poke holes in the plan. For example, Paul isn't honest about the damage his proposal would inflict on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (by allowing workers 25 years old and younger to opt out of the first two programs, and by slashing federal funding for the third). And he would blithely zero out funding for such essentials as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board.

At a more fundamental level, Paul's proposal to cut about $1 trillion in federal spending has some critics complaining that he would send the U.S. economy into another tailspin. That deficit spending may cost future generations dearly, but at the moment it's keeping a lot of people employed and providing a lot of services.

But Paul isn't saying the federal government is wasting every dollar it spends; he's saying the federal government doesn't need to do much of what it does. Which gets us back to the existential challenge that Paul poses to Washington. Why is the federal government performing so many functions?

It's a good question to ask in these cash-strapped times, yet government officials rarely take it seriously. That's true in part because every program is guarded by a phalanx of interest groups. Rather than trying to redefine government's role, lawmakers often try to do the same things with fewer dollars.

I tend to think of the federal government as the place to provide services that are national in nature, such as defense and foreign aid, and to solve problems that stretch beyond state boundaries. And by my standards, Paul would abdicate some critical federal responsibilities and turn America too far inward, leaving the poor and the elderly too much at the mercy of their local lawmakers' ideologies.

But at least Paul laid out a detailed vision of government that pushed me to think about what I want from Washington and what would be better left to the states, cities and private industry. I wish his rivals would do the same.


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-- Jon Healey

Credit:  Mike Carlson / Associated Press

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