Politics & Policy

Paul, the Fringe Frontrunner

An Iowa that would select Ron Paul is an Iowa that deserves to be taken less seriously.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is in a bid to make history in Iowa. Can he become the first marginal, conspiracy-minded congressman with an embarrassing catalog of racist material published under his name to win the caucuses?

In 2008, the surest way to get applause in the Republican primary debates was to excoriate Ron Paul. This year, the Texas libertarian stands much closer to the emotional center of gravity of the party in his condemnations of government spending, crony capitalism, the Federal Reserve, and foreign intervention. He brings 100-proof moonshine to the GOP cocktail party. It can be invigorating and fun, if you ignore the nasty adulterants.

The fight over Ron Paul isn’t a battle for the soul of the Republican Party so much as for its standards. Throughout his career, Paul hasn’t been able to distinguish between fringy cranks and aboveboard purists. He has taken a principled anti-government position and associated it with loons and bigots. It may be the ultimate commentary on the weakness of this Republican field that it hasn’t even been able to produce a respectable out-there libertarian.

Paul can be a winsome figure in his irritable, absent-minded-professor way. Invariably wearing a suit jacket that looks a size or two too big, he has stood out in the debates for his knowledge and for his entirely consistent worldview applied to any problem, politics be damned. He gives listeners reason to smile or nod a couple of times every debate, and reason to wonder if he has been reading too much Noam Chomsky.

He tends to bring any conversation back to the malignancy of U.S. foreign policy. In the final debate in Iowa, he rambled on about how worries about the Iranian nuclear program are “war propaganda,” but if the Iranians get the bomb that they’re not developing, that’s entirely understandable, since we’re “promoting their desire to have it.” Jeane Kirkpatrick famously condemned the “Blame America First” Democrats; would that she had lived long enough to condemn the “Blame America First” libertarians.

In the debate, Paul went on to warn against a push “to declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims,” as if a country that has resorted to force of arms to save Muslims from starvation (Somalia), from ethnic cleansing (Bosnia, Kosovo), and from brutal dictators (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) is bristling with an undifferentiated hostility toward all Muslims. This isn’t an expression of an anti-interventionism so much as a smear. It goes beyond opposition to American foreign policy to a poisonous view of America itself.

Paul never knows when to stop. He lets his suspicion of centralized power slip into paranoia worthy of a second-rate Hollywood thriller about government malevolence. In January 2010, he declared: “There’s been a coup, have you heard? It’s the CIA coup. The CIA runs everything, they run the military.” On his latest appearance on the radio show of the conspiracy-mongering host Alex Jones, he opined that the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil was “another propaganda stunt.” He exclaimed that the latest defense bill authorizing the indefinite detention of enemy combatants will “literally legalize martial law” (yes, “literally”).

Paul’s promiscuousness with his ideological bedfellows — he hails members of the John Birch Society for their fine educations and respect for the Constitution — accounts for the disgrace he brought on himself with his newsletters in the 1980s and 1990s. As journalist James Kirchick exposed, they were full of race-baiting and rancid Israel-bashing. Paul maintains he didn’t know what was being written in the first person under his name. To this day, he says he doesn’t know who wrote the copy. Has he asked? During some dozen Republican debates, not one journalist thought to query Paul about the newsletters that would be disqualifying for anyone else.

Iowa caucus-goers are protective of their preeminent place in the nominating process. If they deliver victory to a history-making Ron Paul, no one should take them as seriously again.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He may be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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