A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Few of Ron Paul’s enthusiastic supporters actually expect their curmudgeonly, 77-year-old champion to win election as President of the United States, but they nonetheless plan to give him their votes in Republican primaries in order “to send a message” to the GOP and the nation at large.
But what, exactly, is the message that impassioned Paulestinians mean to convey if the controversial congressman’s follows his third place showing in the Iowa caucaus with similarly strong showing in subsequent contests?
Any honest assessment of Ron Paul’s unconventional campaign suggests that whatever successes it manages to achieve can send only two signals, both of them disastrous to Republican prospects and the conservative cause.
First, and most obviously, increased attention to the perplexing Paul phenomenon only serves to strengthen the core argument for Barack Obama’s re-election: that today’s Republicans have become a wild and crazy bunch, harboring oddball, irresponsible notions that place them far outside the American mainstream and make them untrustworthy when it comes to the serious business of governance.
Leave aside the recent publicity for Dr. Demento’s twenty-year-old newsletters, studded with outrageous racist and anti-Semitic comments --which the candidate now claims he never read, but which appeared over his signature, and for which he received generous payment from eager subscribers, amounting to tens of thousands of dollars at the very least.
Much more recently, in the midst of this latest of his three campaigns for the presidency, he has endorsed the outrageous doctrine of “nullification”—suggesting that states have the right to reject federal laws or regulations they dislike, and disregarding well-established Constitutional law that was settled by Andrew Jackson in the 1830’s and Abraham Lincoln (along with 300,000 dead Union soldiers) during the Civil War.
Association with 9/11 conspiracy theorists has destroyed the credibility of numerous figures in public life – even forcing the resignation of Van Jones, perhaps the most loathsome leftwing loony in the Obama administration. But Ron Paul has flirted with such paranoid delusions for years, appearing regularly on the freakazoid radio show of arch-conspiracist Alex Jones (who accuses George Bush and the New World Order of planning the extinction of the human race) and telling one of his senior Congressional aides (Eric Dondero) shortly after September 11th that “the attacks were coordinated with the CIA, and that the Bush administration might have known about the attacks ahead of time.”
When leading GOP strategists acknowledge that the Republicans can only build long-term success for their party by reaching out more successfully to blacks, Hispanics and Jews, Dr. Paul re-emphasized just a few weeks ago his opposition to the celebrated Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which most Republicans in Congress enthusiastically supported at the time).
In his most recent book, LIBERTY DEFINED: 50 ESSENTIAL ISSUES THAT AFFECT OUR FREEDOM (published in 2011), Paul singles out Zionism as one of those “essential issues”—and suggests that the national liberation movement of the Jewish people somehow affects “our freedom” negatively. He also associates himself with the hateful, laughably ahistorical Palestinian doctrine of “Temple Denial”—refusing, apparently, to accept Biblical accounts of the two Jewish Temples that flourished in Jerusalem over a period of nearly 900 years beginning with King Solomon. In his book, Dr. Paul goes out of his way to note “that Jerusalem (Palestine), through many centuries, was under Jewish rule for only about 170 years…Dozens of other regimes occupied the land for much longer periods of time. For instance, Muslims ruled Jerusalem for 1,191 years.”
Concerning more recent history, Paul’s former Congressional aide and long-time campaign worker Eric Dondero recently wrote a piece for LibertarianRepublican.net in which he attempted to defend his former boss against charges of anti-Semitism and racism relating to his newsletters. But he frankly allowed that “Ron Paul is most assuredly an isolationist….I can tell you straight out, I had countless arguments/discussions with him over his personal views. For example, he strenuously does not believe the United States had any business getting involved in fighting Hitler in WWII…When pressed, he often brings up conspiracy theories like FDR knew about the attacks of Pearl Harbor weeks before hand, or that WWII was just ‘blowback’ for Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy errors, and such.”
These eccentric, detestable views may play little role in the Republican primary campaign but David Axelrod, James Carville and other Democratic operatives will make them a major focus of their ferocious efforts to depict the GOP as a haven for whack-jobs, religious kooks, cranks, losers, greedy-one-per-centers and anti-American extremists. Every additional vote cast for the Mad Doctor in the primaries, every additional delegate he secures, will only help Team Obama in using his prominence in the nomination fight to discredit the entire Republican Party.
Which brings us to the second poisonous message broadcast to the nation’s undecided voters by any and all scraps of Ronulan progress in the primary process: the notion that the Republican Party remains hopelessly divided, helpless to cope with its most oddly obsessed activists, and utterly unable to provide the unifying, competent leadership that most Americans crave.
In the all-but-certain event that Ron Paul fails to secure the GOP nomination, the convention in Tampa must still decide how to handle the maverick candidate and his fanatically devoted supporters. Given his ongoing refusal to commit to supporting the party’s ultimate nominee this is, to put it mildly, a delicate proposition. After his feeble primary showing in 2008, it hardly mattered that Dr. Paul refused to participate in the Republican convention and instead gathered his true-believers at his very own “counter convention” across town in St. Paul (a city which, contrary to popular belief, was not named after the candidate). There, various 9/11 Truthers, UFO believers, Bilderberg aficionados, Third Party dreamers and Jesse Ventura held forth on their pet causes, while the crotchety candidate himself went on to throw his support to four fringe party contenders (Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, Chuck Baldwin and Bob Barr) while denying his endorsement, pointedly, to John McCain and Sarah Palin.
If, after gathering more notable support in caucuses and primaries across the country, Paul repeats this petulant performance in 2012, the impact on GOP chances in the general election could be catastrophic. He repeatedly insists he has no current intention of launching an independent candidacy (and his closest associates see scant chance that he’d make the race) but he also refuses to answer whenever questioned about his willingness to support the Republican ticket.
Unless he changes his tune and unabashedly embraces Romney, Gingrich, Perry or whichever rival comes out of primary season with a majority of delegates, it’s inconceivable that convention organizers would grant him the high profile, prime time speaking slot he demands. How could GOP strategists possibly invite Dr. Demento to address the assembled delegates (and, through the wonders of live television, the rest of the country) without some iron-clad assurance that he wouldn’t use the occasion to trash the party itself and its newly-selected candidates?
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a reassuring “unity photo” from the Tampa convention showing Ron Paul joining the other also-rans lifting arms at the podium together with the victor who has beaten them. The more support angry voters provide to a Paul protest candidacy the more inconceivable that image becomes, and the more likely the re-election of Obama and Biden.
By far the best outcome for those who yearn above all to replace the Democrat in the White House would be to witness the rapid, well-deserved fizzle of the Paulian insurgency. If Paul winds up with less than 10 percent of the national Republican vote he would merit only an obscure position at the convention, reassuring the broader public that if you refuse to disavow support from open Nazis and unrepentant Ku Kluxers --as Dr. Paul explicitly refuses to do, in interviews recently with the New York Times and four years ago on my radio show—you will find no comfortable home in today’s Republican Party.
Voters who might feel tempted to express discontent with the status quo by casting a ballot for Ron Paul during primary season still understand that backing him in any third party bid would bring disaster to the conservative cause; in the general election, it’s obvious that a vote for Ron Paul would amount to a vote for Barack Obama.
But even in caucuses and primaries, the prospective rise of “Paul Power” would cripple Republican chances for the climactic contest, conveying the impression of a GOP that nourishes angry extremists and remains painfully divided, headed toward crushing defeat at the hands of an unworthy foe in a fateful election that should have been winnable.