The signs gather: Ron Paul is just one point behind Newt Gingrich in Iowa in a new poll. Paul has also won the Cedar Rapids Tea Party straw poll in high style, drawing 37 first-place votes from the 60 participants, to second-place finisher Rick Santorum’s nine votes (60 participants? It must be important!). He could win Iowa. I hope he does—the more disarray the better. But if he hauls in a plurality of votes from a caucus-going electorate that consists of hard-right evangelicals and harder-right Tea Partiers, I’d hope that maybe that fact would finally give pause to the Paul Hipster Caucus in the cities that somehow got in its head that there’s something cool about this batty old reactionary.
If Paul does win, he definitely creates at least a temporary tornado. I say temporary for two reasons. First, because Iowa is sui generis in so many ways having to do with the nature and priorities of the electorate, Paul would seem to be unlikely to have a chance to notch a victory in other early states. So even after an Iowa win, he would be likely to fade pretty quickly. Second, it’s always worth remembering that there are times in history when Iowa hasn’t been important at all. George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, and John McCain in 2008 all performed poorly in Iowa—Clinton didn’t compete there at all—and all went on to capture their nominations without a great amount of stress.
But the tornado, however momentary, will be plenty real, especially if Mitt Romney finishes a somewhat distant third to Paul and Gingrich, which seems completely possible. Then, for the week between Iowa and New Hampshire, the media storyline will probably be “Can Romney save his skin?” Remember 2008 on the other side. Hillary Clinton suffered an upset loss in Iowa, and the next week was all about whether she could beat Barack Obama in New Hampshire. She did and lived to fight on. But if she’d lost that one, she was going to be declared cooked. So a Paul win in Iowa, or even a comfortable second-place finish there, makes Romney’s situation that much more dire.
In this scenario, Paul suddenly becomes a kind of a kingmaker in Republican politics, no longer the outsider banging on the door. Maybe then, finally, those denizens of Williamsburg and Los Feliz and the Mission District who have found in Paul an interesting iconoclast will get over it.
I wonder what these young and gender-transcendent and differently melanined people would make, for example, of the racism charges. There is debate on this point, but back during the 2008 campaign, The New Republic’s James Kirchick tracked down old copies (late 1980s and early 1990s) of a newsletter that went out to subscribers under Paul’s name. The sentences that appear in these documents are so astonishing that they’d have stood out in Alabama in 1960. Martin Luther King was a “world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours” (who were, interestingly, of both sexes). The name of New York City should be changed to “Welfaria,” “Zooville,” “Rapetown,” “Dirtburg,” or “Lazyopolis.” David Duke’s near-win in the 1990 Louisiana Senate primary was celebrated. Mountains of material about welfare cheats and animals and arming oneself for the coming race riot and so on.
Paul said then he had no idea who wrote those sentences. But they appeared in a newsletter that blazoned his name across every issue, so it scarcely matters who wrote them. By definition he endorsed the views. Hilariously, he said on CNN that King and Rosa Parks were heroes of his because they “practiced the libertarian principle of civil disobedience,” which meant that they were “trying to get the burden of government off their backs.” Putting aside the question of what exactly it is about civil disobedience that’s libertarian, it is quite true that King wanted Bull Connor off his back, but he rather strongly wanted the federal government to be the instrument of Connor’s removal. So even if Paul is not a racist, he is on this point a complete idiot or propagandist or both.
He gets a lot of credit from young, hip, pseudo-libertarians for being antiwar, and I’ll give him credit for sticking to that position. But it’s really less brave than it looks. There has always been an isolationist strain in the GOP, so it was always clear that he’d have a base of support there to watch his back against the neocons. And besides, the war turned out to be highly unpopular, which worked out very nicely for him. And there’s the infrequently discussed negative side to his foreign-policy views that sometimes American power actually helps do good things. We need look only as far back as Libya. But outside the realm of war, there are a million and one things the United States does every day in terms of global development and mitigating disease and hunger that our hipsters surely find agreeable, that do make the world a better place than it would be without them—and that Paul would eliminate immediately if he could.
I’ve never understood the allure of libertarianism. You may want a big state, you may want a smaller state. The idea of virtually no state is just silly. Does Ron Paul think the state grew because a bunch of liberal busybodies woke up one day in 1795 and said to one another, “Gee, we’d better impose some taxes and regulations here. These people are too free!” He probably does. The fact, of course, is that the state grew because dishonest and immoral and cheap and corner-cutting shysters in the private sector did things that ripped people off, made them sick, killed them, rendered them unequal citizens, and someone had to step in. And my esteemed colleague Andrew Sullivan should bear in mind that while it’s nice that Paul supports everyone’s right to privacy in the bedroom, if someone gets beaten to a pulp on the street simply for being who he is, don’t go knocking on Paul’s door, as he’ll be nowhere to be found, hate-crimes laws being a threat to the freedom of the hater and all.
I long for the day I no longer have to think about this pestilential little locust. In the meantime, I do kind of hope he wins Iowa, so that he can spread some of that pestilence around the GOP.