Shortly before Christmas, Ron Paul appeared on the Tonight Show, yukking it up with Jay Leno and dishing on his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Michele Bachmann, Paul said, "doesn't like Muslims. She hates Muslims. She hates them." The Texas congressman agreed with Leno that Rick Santorum is obsessed with certain minority groups: "Gay people and Muslims."
Three things immediately struck me about Paul's comments: they are unwise for someone seeking to win a statewide contest in socially conservative Iowa; they are unfair and uncharitable to his colleagues; and they are utterly incongruent with the current flap over his newsletters from the 1990s.
Paul's instincts don't jibe with the newsletters' more offensive material, which in turn have virtually nothing to do with his current appeal. Moreover, if Paul held social views that were unhelpful to his campaign, it is clear he wouldn't let political considerations keep him from eventually blurting them out.
That's not to say that the Paul camp's explanation for the newsletters is satisfactory, especially for what is now a top-tier campaign. Newt Gingrich became the first of the major Republican candidates to go after Paul on this front. "I think it's very difficult to see how you would engage in dealing with Ron Paul as a nominee," Gingrich told CNN. "Given the newsletters, which he has not yet disowned."
Paul has disowned the content in question, even if he hasn't given a convincing account of its authorship. What vexes the former House speaker is that Paul has also signed his name to some of the most effective anti-Gingrich attack ads running in Iowa. "You look at Ron Paul's record of systemic avoidance of reality, his ads are about as accurate as his newsletter," Gingrich complained.
Enter Eric Dondero, a longtime former Paul aide. Like David Stockman on Ronald Reagan and John Dean on Richard Nixon, Dondero has emerged as an insider who can be counted on to give hostile quotes about his old boss, with whom he now disagrees. Whatever can be said about the details of Dondero's latest statement -- in describing others' views, he doesn't see a lot of daylight between "pro-defense right-libertarians" and "isolationist/pacifist/surrenderists" -- he is surely right that this dispute is less about Paul's alleged political incorrectness in the ‘90s than his foreign policy views now.
Many of the young supporters drawn to Paul's message on war and civil liberties had barely been born when Murray Rothbard died. To them, "paleolibertarianism" is more ancient history than the creation of the Federal Reserve. Similarly, the writers most dedicated to digging through the Ron Paul Survival Report archives are almost uniformly foreign policy hawks.
None of this makes exploring a presidential candidate's past an illegitimate journalistic exercise. Barack Obama had ties to Jeremiah Wright; Rudy Giuliani conducted three hard-fought mayoral campaigns in the period of racial polarization that helped give rise to the Survival Report. If either of them had published incendiary newsletters, it would be worth investigating even if the heavy lifting had to be done by scribes who opposed other aspects of the candidates' policy agendas.
Moreover, Paul continues to attract some marginal supporters. Some are kooks and 9/11 truthers, despite the obvious intellectual contradictions between "blowback" and conspiracy theories alleging that the 2001 terrorist attacks were an "inside job." Others are bigots and anti-Semites. Paul remains convinced that it is more important to spread the libertarian gospel than to purge the undesirables in his midst.
Yet it only seems fair to note that today Paul is the lone Republican candidate who talks about the suffering of black Americans under the war on drugs, that he is further removed from the idea that "[c]ops must be unleashed and allowed to administer instant punishment" than any major candidate in either major party. Paul has risen in the polls not because Americans are coming around to his views on past controversies, whether they concern the Civil War or the 1988 Libertarian Party nomination fight, but because they share his belief that the country's current direction is unsustainable.
Some of Paul's war-weary voters might even prefer a candidate who broke less radically from the American foreign policy consensus. But the Chuck Hagels and Jon Huntsmans don't tend to be with them when it counts. They regret their support for the last war and then go on to reluctantly support the next one.
A Republican Party free of racism or bigotry is an admirable goal. A GOP free of meaningful debate on foreign policy is anything but.
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