The Mad Doctor and the GOP

Terrance Heath

Mad_scientist_caricature.png (PNG Image, 342x320 pixels) It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Republican party in the run-up to 2012. First, the party had a literal embarrassment of riches, in the form of a field chock-full of candidates with something for just about every major faction and minor fringe the GOP has cobbled into a conservative coalition. Then, dragged through a series of debates in which the only thing more embarrassing than the candidates was the audience, the candidates who were bona fide right-wing stars, wilted under hot lights of ever intensifying media and public scrutiny.

Inevitably, the field narrowed. Herman Cain went home to (finally) spend more time with his family. Michelle Bachmann has been asked to drop out — again. Rick Perry is still around, but merely provides comic relief at this point. Yet that hasn’t improved the field. Even Newt Gingrich’s ironic return to relevance as the Republicans’ savior seems to be winding down. Meanwhile, the all important Iowa Caucuses loom. And all eyes turn to Ron Paul — the GOP’s own Mad Doctor.

And now that some troublesome old skeletons are re-emerging from his own closet, Paul isn’t handling the spotlight much better than the rest of them.

GOP candidate Ron Paul walked out of an interview with CNN’s Gloria Borger on Wednesday.

Borger repeatedly asked the candidate about newsletters that were sent out in the 1980s and 1990s bearing his name. The newsletters included racist comments that made headlines in the Texas Congressman’s previous campaigns for the House in 1996 and the presidency in 2008.

Paul has maintained that he was not responsible for the remarks. He repeated his defense to Borger on Wednesday, who still pressed the candidate on the issue. Paul decided that he had apparently had enough and began taking off his mic as Borger was still asking questions, ending the interview in a huff.

Borger thanked Paul for answering her questions and said, “I appreciate you answering the questions and you understand it’s our job to ask them.”

The newsletters are a four-year-old story, and for for years Paul’s defense has been that he did not write the comments. Yet, as Ta-nehisi Coates points out, that (a) one can legitimately “question the faculties of an adult who would allow a newsletter filled–by Paul’s own admission–with bigotry to be published under one’s name,” and (b) Paul initially defended the letters. Then he disavowed them. Paul’s story has changed over the years, and he has has not only vouched for the “accuracy” of the writings at times, but at other times has admitted to writing at least some of the passages.

New York Magazine’s Daily Intel posted about the newsletters last week, and summed it up as a big problem that the GOP has ignored.

Around four years ago, James Kirchick reported a lengthy story delving into Paul’s worldview. As Kirchick writes, Paul comes out of an intellectual tradition called “paleolibertarianism,” which is a version of libertarianism heavily tinged with far-right cultural views. The gist is that Paul is tied in deep and extensive ways to neo-Confederates, and somewhat less tightly to the right-wing militia movement. His newsletter, which he wrote and edited for years, was a constant organ of vile racism and homophobia. This is not just picking out a phrase here and there. Fear and hatred of blacks and gays, along with a somewhat less pronounced paranoia about Jewish dual loyalty, are fundamental elements of his thinking. The most comparable figure to Paul is Pat Buchanan, the main differences being that Paul emphasizes economic issues more, and has more dogmatically pro-market views.

How, then, has Paul become a figure of admiration among social liberals?

One reason is that nobody is attacking him. Paul is (correctly) considered to have no chance to actually win the GOP nomination, so debate moderators have not bothered to research his past, instead tossing off generalized questions that allow him to portray himself on his preferred terms. The Republican Establishment is focusing all its fire on Newt Gingrich, and indeed, Paul’s rise in Iowa would greatly aid Mitt Romney’s campaign by preventing an acceptable alternative from emerging from the state with momentum.

Well, that’s already starting to change, as Steve Kornacki explained after Sean Hannity went hard after Ron Paul last week.

Hannity’s preferred strategy has been to ignore Paul, so it’s telling that less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses he felt the need on Wednesday to bring Bill Bennett on his show for a segment of unsaturated Paul-bashing. Bennett articulated an increasingly common concern among GOP elites, saying that Paul’s candidacy “isn’t going anywhere — except if he wins Iowa.”

And what happens if he does?

If you have a mischievous streak, it’s a fun possibility to consider, because the short answer is that guys like Bennett and Hannity will freak out — and their freak-out could last for a while. An Iowa victory would make Paul the center of the political media world, flood his campaign treasury with even more small-dollar donations, and boost his prospects in subsequent states. He might be able to parlay it into an impressive showing in libertarian-friendly New Hampshire, weather losses in South Carolina and Florida (where the numbers just aren’t very promising), then surge again in February, when his caucus state strategy kicks in. If the rest of the field remains unsettled then — with, say, Romney winning New Hampshire and Newt Gingrich taking South Carolina and Florida — Paul could find himself at or near the top of the delegate race, pushing the Hannity/Bennett panic level through the roof.

That, as Earl Ofari Hutchison writes, is a potential nightmare for Republicans, whether Paul wins the Iowa Caucus or not.

Ron Paul will win the Iowa Caucus whether he actually comes out on top or not. A win for him simply means a solid showing, which he’ll make. He’ll accomplish that feat because he has a legion of young, and not so young, fanatical true-believer devotees that have anointed him as the political second coming of St. Paul and Mother Teresa. They do three things that are absolutely indispensable to a successful campaign: organize, organize, organize.

They do it with zest because they buy hard into his off-beat views, from slashing government down to virtually nothing; to his controversial off beat quips on race matters. During the 2008 presidential campaign, they rabidly defended Paul against all comers even after he was unceremoniously dumped from the ballots. This created a huge problem not for the Democrats but for the GOP. The millions that went into a swoon over Paul were in no mood to mob the polls to vote for another placid, corporate, Beltway insider GOP presidential candidate. John McCain was that candidate.

The absence of Paul on any ballot meant an absence of thousands of voters who in any other season might have cast a vote for the GOP. GOP mainstream leaders thought then that they had seen the last of the aged party gadfly and his fanatical hordes. They assured that his extreme choke-the-eyes-out-of-government-view would not cloud the GOP’s tunnel vision drive to make President Obama a one-term president in 2012. They were dead wrong. Paul not only refused to go quietly into the night but has emerged scarier than ever in 2012.

Hutchison has a point. Several, actually.

I saw the passion of Ron Paul’s young supporters up close and personal during my sojourn at CPAC earlier this year. They not only had the temerity to boo Dick Cheney, but they damn near brought his speech to a halt. They also gave Paul his second consecutive CPAC straw poll win, as well his Values Voter straw poll win. In both cases, the brought their passion to bear on Ron Paul’s behalf, and they are probably a big part of Ron Paul’s Iowa organization, which powered the surge that’s made Paul the projected winner in Iowa, just in time to fill the hole left by Newt’s nosedive.

There’s another conservative faction, that might find Paul appealing. In fact, the renewed interests in his old newsletters, not to mention his interesting views regarding slavery, could only boost his standing among citizens of what some have called the “New Confederacy” rising up within the Republican party. His brand of free-market fundamentalism isn’t much different from their fundamentalism. Plus, his advisor on faith issues is the guy who taught the Bushes to talk religion.

Pragmatists and progressives defer to experts and professionals. They expect truth claims to be supported by evidence that emerges from research and testing. They put their faith in this process, and in the communities of inquiry–the disciplines–legitimized by secular institutions of higher education.

The new Confederacy rejects that process wholesale. Its leaders and authorities are the spiritual descendants of the conservative Christians and charismatic radio preachers who broke away from religious modernism in the 1920s and 1930s. For these leaders and their followers, faith justifies–and verifies–itself. You don’t believe an idea because it’s true. It’s true because you believe it.

This is why, in the “real America” of Bachmann, Palin and Perry, it is self-evident that cutting taxes increases revenues; the founders were evangelical Christians; evolution is bunk; climate change is a hoax; the United States has the best healthcare system in the world; we can transform the Middle East into a garden of democracy; Kenya native Barack Obama has slashed the military budget; the war on drugs is worth the cost; and so on. These are all leaps of faith. The new Confederates flat-out reject or ignore any counter-evidence, because they have their own fount of truth. FOX News is the obvious example, but decades before the rise of FOX–going back to the early 20th century radio evangelists–conservatives had been quietly building their own media and networks for “truth” telling.

And here is the unsettling thing for anyone concerned about this fraught moment in the American experiment. Though they’re clueless, the leaders of the new Confederacy do offer a seductively egalitarian vision. The solutions to all our problems can be found, they promise, not through actual experimentation or so-called knowledge, but from the simple faith of ordinary citizens.

The problem for the GOP is that, if the party wants to have a hope of winning the White House in 2012, Paul can’t be the nominee. As much as his views might endear him to increasingly vocal and powerful (witness the debt deal debacle and the recent payroll tax cut fiasco) factions within the party, they would doom his candidacy in the general election. (At least, that’s what one hopes.)

The even bigger problem for the GOP is, that Paul won’t be he nominee. With no other candidate that has a base as passionate and loyal as as Paul’s, even a second place spot in Iowa leaves him in a position to be a spoiler throughout the primaries and on in the general election. If he follows through on his threat not to endorse any of other GOP hopefuls, the mad doctor of the GOP just might slice a significant number off any potential margin of victory for the GOP.

 

 

 

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