Our Odd Ron Paul "Moment"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 15 2011 3:13 PM

Our Odd Ron Paul "Moment"

Ron Paul, the presidential candidate who's receieved the least coverage proportional to his polling and fundraising oomph, is finally getting his try-out in the media Wheel 'o Random Iowa Surges. He's polling in the high teens or low twenties. He makes the cover of Drudge. Nate Silver thinks he might win the caucus, if things keep breaking bad for Gingrich. And the coverage of Paul is still of the "gee, wow, what?" variety. See Joel Achenbach's (very good) profile of the candidate, which keeps its discussion of Paul's odder beliefs to an aside. "Paul believes that powerful and secretive forces (the Fed being the best example)," writes Achenbach, "have manipulated human events and bankrolled wars. He fears that the nation is turning into an Orwellian police state."

Jon Chait has had all he can stand. He can't stands no more. He also realizes that a headline like "Ron Paul is a huge racist" is spanish fly for SEO and traffic. And so he becomes the first opinion writer to interrupt the Paul moment by reminding people of the expose Jamie Kirchick wrote in 2008, after digging through the University of Wisconsin's archive of old Paul newsletters. In his interregnum out of power, Paul lent his name to newsletters that printed dopey, racist, Buchananite attacks on minorities. "Fear and hatred of blacks and gays," writes Chait, "along with a somewhat less pronounced paranoia about Jewish dual loyalty, are fundamental elements of his thinking."

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So, two questions. 1) Why doesn't this stuff hurt Paul? 2) Will anyone try and nail him with it?

The first answer is that this stuff was introduced and partially litigated four years ago. Just as old stories about Mitt Romney aren't getting much pick-up this time, and old "ha ha, what a sci-fi nerd" droppings from Gingrich's old books are only really amusing liberal blog readers, the newsletter story is just old enough to be... old. After Kirchick's piece came out, Julian Sanchez and I reported a story for Reason about how exactly this stuff appeared under Paul's name. It's too long to excerpt, but the gist was that Paul allowed some employees to engage in white populist grunt-speech that, it would later turn out, paleolibertarianism could thrive without. Paul said he had no idea who wrote the letters, which wasn't very credible, but my sense was that he really didn't harbor the sorts of thoughts that appeared in the letter.

The other answer sets up the second question. Unless an opponent tries to tar Paul by saying he endorsed racism, Republican voters probably won't hear about it. And will someobody attack him? Ah, here's where the problems with the Paul moment come in. Paul's very strong in Iowa and strong in New Hampshire. But after those states vote, the race moves to South Carolina and Florida. The first state has always been one of Paul's weakest. The second state is simply too large for Paul's fans to overwhelm the vote like they can in Iowa caucuses or in the relatively small New Hampshire primary. They're mostly closed primaries, with no ways for liberal anti-war Democrats to boost Paul. So Republicans don't think Paul will grow beyond his new, fairly large subsection of the GOP. Paul only becomes a problem to them if the race continues to the caucus states that he performed very well in last time, where he's had extra time and money to organize.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.