In Teddy Roosevelt’s famous rebuke of critics, the nation’s 26th president praised the “man in the arena” who, at his worst, “fails while daring greatly.”
Those words call to mind the removal of Ron Paul supporter Matt Collins from his position as vice chairman of the Davidson County Republican Party.
Collins is a lot of things: an extremist, politically naive and even arrogant. But he’s not reluctant to get his hands dirty.
He wasn’t content to sit back and be just another Ron Paul Internet troll fighting the good fight for liberty behind the comfort of a computer screen. Collins entered the arena.
Paul may not have won the presidential primary in 2008, but the candidate certainly made a mark. He raised money, scored points in debates and inspired voters who felt marginalized. His message of Old Right libertarianism reached a new audience. But his campaign ultimately failed politically because it had no tentacles in the establishment, no institutional support. He had enthusiastic and committed foot soldiers, but they were disorganized and ultimately impotent. Collins and others set out to change that post-2008.
It’s not a myth that a determined and motivated few can overcome an apathetic majority, but those few can only triumph if they know where the buttons and levers of power are and how to use them.
And Collins does. Moreover, in the service of trying to be effective, the longhaired music engineer cut his ponytail and traded in his concert T-shirts for suits. He started attending local Republican Party meetings. It was far more than many partisans are willing to do in the name of any political cause.
But the Republican establishment looks askance at the Ron Paul revolutionaries as nut jobs and conspiratorialists. The job of a “leader” in that movement is to be an activist while at the same time making the establishment comfortable — putting them at ease while building numbers and fortifying a position of strength.
What a leader shouldn’t do after achieving a small measure of power is embody the caricature of those he’s trying to lead. And that’s where Collins fumbled. Every time he posted a sophomoric blog comment or refused to shake a congressman's hand at a picnic, he solidified the stereotype of the Ron Paul supporter.
What’s worse, Collins had the chance to correct his mistakes and walk back his missteps but chose not to. While his removal hearing was in recess, members of the county executive committee approached him and offered a deal. It was simple: Apologize for your inflammatory words and actions, and additional votes will be there to prevent your ouster. Collins declined even to entertain the possibility of apologizing publicly for his actions.
“I fail to see how refusing to shake the hand of a thief such as bailout-supporting Rep. ‘ZigZag Zach’ Wamp is ‘disrespectful’. In fact it was one of the more polite things I could do to show him I disapproved of his acting like a liberal Democrat,” Collins said in a comment to Post Politics.
No one likes to compromise, and it can be a constant struggle to determine where compromise ends and capitulation begins. Bend too much and you are a pushover for the establishment, stand too rigid and the powers that be will cut you off at your extremist knees.
Collins says he never should have been booted from his position in the party because he broke no bylaws. But it wasn’t the letter of the law that he violated — it was the spirit of leadership.
Collins refused a sitting congressman the courtesy most people would give a stranger off the street, and was unrepentant for it. Bylaws or no bylaws, he gave his enemies the knife to cut his own throat.
The Ron Paul movement is all that’s exciting and youthful about the national Republican Party these days. It’s the perfect time for the Ron Paul revolution to start shaping a modern, energetic Republican Party.
But that’s only possible when leaders act like leaders. Collins took the bold first step entering the arena as a participant but ultimately fell short, proving incapable or unwilling to make the sacrifices that can result in real political influence.
Nobody ever said bringing a fringe movement into the mainstream was easy. Now it’s time for someone to succeed where Collins failed.
Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com's political blogger. Visit him at http://postpolitics.net.