Texas Congressman Ron Paul may have been speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference that finished up over the weekend.

He may have been hinting to a cheering crowd that he will run again for the Republican presidential nomination—a prospect the crowd found appealing, as Paul won the conference’s straw poll with ten times as many votes as Sarah Palin.

That unsettled some CPAC attendees. The defenders of the conservative orthodoxies of the moment—as opposed to the Old Right stances Paul echoes—can’t figure out his appeal. To their view, he’s off-message on everything from the war on terror to Wall Street. And they dismiss his backers as hooligans.

But what unsettles mainstream conservatives ought to interest mainstream progressives.

Indeed, those who would like to see the Democratic Party stand for something other than a soft variation on Republicanism might want to take a few cues—no, not all their cues, just a few—from Ron Paul.

In his CPAC speech, Paul hailed the failure of the US House to renew the Patriot Act. But he did not stop there. He declared: “The Patriot Act, as we know, has nothing to do with patriotism—they always name it opposite of what it is. The Patriot Act is the destruction of the Fourth Amendment. That’s what it’s all about!”

Paul celebrated the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But he did not stop there. He declared: “How much did we invest in that dictator of the past thirty years?” he asked. “Seventy billion dollars we invested in Egypt, and guess what, the government is crumbling, the people are upset, not only with their government, but they’re upset with us for propping up that public dictator for all those years. Now to add insult to injury, where do you think the money went? To his bank account.” 

Paul decried the folly of the US occupation of Afghanistan. But he did not stop there. He declared: “It makes no sense for us to think that we can keep troops in 135 countries, 900 bases, and think that we can do it forever… It’s time to reassess that foreign policy. It’s for us time to bring troops home. We’ve got troops in Japan since World War II, and in Germany. Why are we paying for their defense.”

Paul criticized bloated Pentagon spending, But he did not stop there. He declared: “I’m sure half the people in this room won’t cut one penny out of the military. And the military is not equated to defense. Defense spending is one thing, military spending is what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex, and we have to go after that!”

Paul condemned bailouts of big banks and corporations. But he did not stop there. He declared: “Guess who does the bailing out? The Federal Reserve used $4 billion dollars to pass out without Congressional approval. Most people say: ‘That’s the Federal Reserve’s job to do that.’ No, it is our job to check up and find what the Federal Reserve has done, audit them and find who their buddies are that they’re taking care of.”

The point here is not to make too big a deal of Paul.

It happens that I disgree with the amiable Texan on a lot of more points than we share. For instance, I’m not with him getting rid of entitlement programs. And while we may agree cutting military aid to foreign despots, we disagree about cutting humanitarian aid to foreign children.

But Paul’s willingness to defend civil liberties without apology, to criticize dictators and the US policies that support them, to call for bringing troops home, to attack the military-industrial complex and to condemn bank bailouts and crony capitalism is not just on target. It’s compelling.

If Democrats are interested in identifying themselves as anything more potent than a kinder, gentler variation on mainstream Republicanism, if they recognize that drab managerialism does not excite the American people, if they want not only to win elections but to make those wins mean something, they should borrow the best lines from Ron Paul’s text.

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