It’s that time again—time for Ron Paul’s admirers to bray that he’s not getting his fair share of press coverage, that the establishment media can’t handle an unorthodox truth teller like him, and so on. They may be correct that elements of the mainstream media, owing to certain longstanding conventions of news-story writing, can’t fit Paul into one of their handy shoeboxes. I, on the other hand, have no trouble categorizing him whatsoever. He is an unserious, extremist crank whose appeal among those who ought to know better is one of the bleakest facts of our bleak political life.
Paul is doing better this time around the track than last, no doubt about it. If you visit his website you will see quickly that Paul (so it says) does better against Barack Obama than any other Republican candidate. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are close, but only Paul, according to the site, is in essentially a dead heat with the president (Obama with 39 percent to Paul’s 38 pecent). He’s hitting double digits in some polls of the GOP field. He is, Politico reports, holding town-hall meetings for the first time, so as to introduce himself to new voters and not simply rely on that hyperactive network of Pauline disciples who are pure in their devotion and who are known, as you might recall from last time, for goosing the results of every nonscientific Internet survey of the GOP field (for example, in those instant “who won the debate?” polls, where people can vote as many times as they like). So the man is reaching new plateaus.
There are certain things one would like to like about Paul. His famous “neoconned” speech from 2003, which dumped buckets of piss and vinegar all over neoconservative doctrine, was very good; it was a blunter and more direct attack than any prominent Democrats proved themselves capable of at the time. Then there’s ... well, actually, there is nothing else. That’s it. But he does deserve a measure of credit for adopting that posture and holding to it in George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Republican Party, even if he took matters, as is his way, to an indefensible extreme at the last GOP debate, when he insisted that if Iran wants the bomb, that’s Iran’s business.
But outside of that and a few other smaller things—like his support for drug legalization, a long-held and standard libertarian view—he is a conventional right-wing, out-there extremist, and on both economic and social issues, it’s important to note. It’s not just about abolishing the Federal Reserve. He doesn’t “accept” evolution, as Matthew Yglesias has noted, and despite all these protests of his about the government, he very much seems to want the government dictating what a woman can and can’t do when it comes to pregnancy. (He’s called abortion “the most important issue of our age.” And all this time I thought it was Austrian business-cycle theory.)
And yet Paul has appeal (which I find appalling, to riff on Adlai Stevenson’s great old line) among people who would normally find such views risible. I can’t tell you the number of people I encountered in 2008 who said they were Barack Obama supporters first and foremost, but, by cracky, they were also kinda interested in this Paul fellow.
This seemed completely insane to me, a person who sees the world first through ideology. But then I realized that for this cohort, it was more emotional than intellectual (as much of politics is, even though we’re not supposed to admit that). People who like to think of themselves as outsiders gravitate toward ... duh, outsiders. Some people take great comfort in backing candidates they know will never win—they prefer, on some deep level, to fall short and be angry about it. It encases their loserdom in a carapace of purity and righteousness. I had a friend, a hard-core leftist (actually, toward the end, he would not have called me his friend), who liked to say: “Vote for the loser, he’ll never let you down.” His posture was more ideological than emotional, but it amounts to the same thing in the end—keep the system’s blood off your hands.
This time around, though, some of that blood could spill into Paul Land. His rising poll numbers indicate that he could make some gratifying trouble next year. We know he can raise money. And his appeal is not regional, because angry outsiders live everywhere. Put those together, and maybe he will perform well in several states and stick around for a while and collect enough delegates to have some convention leverage. But the paradox of Ron Paul is that if he gained any actual power, most of his base would desert him, because it’s not power they want but a vessel for their resentments. They, and their candidate, need FEMA to kick around. If they ever did get power and abolish FEMA and the Fed, the world would find out quickly that FEMA and the Fed had been pretty useful after all—and then Paul would be not an admirable knight-errant loser but a shamed one. And no one has any use for one of those.