After what seemed an eternity of debates, the New Hampshire primary has whirred into life. Like a great creaky old grandfather clock striking the hour -- a reminder not only of passing time but that the grand old thing still has life in it.
The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and therefore target-in-chief, Mitt Romney, was back on rocky New England soil, still trying out the catch phrases that presidential candidates use as a substitute for thought. ("Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" "Hope and Change!") His latest theme? He's engaged in a battle for "the soul of America."
The candidate might first take the precaution of winning the battle for the soul of his always divided party, which is split -- as usual -- between its true believers and pragmatic movers-and-shakers, its rhetoricians and its doers.
Once again the party's wavy rank and uneven file, individualists all, must choose between seeking refuge in some nice quiet corner where they can confirm each other's pet theories, or venturing out in the real world where compromises must be made if anything else is to be.
The best diagnosis of this familiar Republican dilemma came from a rumpled old ex-communist named Whittaker Chambers. (Ex-communists make the best champions of freedom, for they know the enemy intimately, having been one.) An old party man, Whittaker Chambers knew his new one would have to adapt or die. Or, as he put it in a letter to a feisty young whippersnapper named William F. Buckley Jr. at the time, which shortly after the Republicans had lost the midterm elections of 1958:
"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people ... the Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
Guess which of the Republican presidential candidates is playing the all too familiar role of Old Man in Dark Shop this year. It doesn't take much guessing. For he lives in his own narrow world, in which isolationism is a practical foreign policy and the gold standard the solution to our financial crisis.
Earnest commentators on television have been heard expressing surprise that Ron Paul, whose ideas are even older than he is, should be attracting so many young supporters.