As Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) gains in popularity and political relevance - he's currently polling tops in Iowa and is looking very good in New Hampshire - he's got more and more explaining to do about the late 1980s-early '90s newsletters that went out under his name.

And make no mistake about it: The newsletters include undeniably racist and other vile comments, such as calling blacks "animals," preternaturally criminal, and welfare cases. No amount of "contextualizing" is going to change that, especially when the contextualizing includes rationalizations such as this:

"If you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be."

These statements are offensive, and I’d bet my bottom dollar that Ron Paul not only didn’t write them, but never read.

(One might quibble about the “fleet-footed” quip: it seems more like a compliment, albeit a left-handed one, rather than an insult—but never mind.)

Despite the claims of Paul's most devoted supporters, it's not a "smear" to raise the newsletters (smear would apply only if the newsletters didn't exist). And the newsletter issue definitely threatens the continued popularity of Paul's campaign.

Which leads to the basic question for those of us who find Ron Paul to be most successful and influential articulator of libertarian ideas in politics today: Do the newsletters invalidate his candidacy?

Paul recently walked out on a CNN interview with Gloria Borger when she brought up the newsletter issue, saying he'd already disavowed them decades ago, wasn't aware of their content, and hasn't changed his story. But USA Today reports what readers of Reason already know: That he has in fact said different things about the provenance of the newsletters over the years and his involvement with them.

In 2001, Paul told the magazine Texas Monthly that the language in the newsletters wasn't his, but his campaign staff told him not to say others had written it because it was "too confusing."

"I could never say this in the campaign, but those words weren't really written by me," he said. "It wasn't my language at all. Other people help me with my newsletter as I travel around."

Texas Monthly said of Paul: "It is a measure of his stubbornness, determination, and ultimately his contrarian nature that, until this surprising volte-face in our interview, he had never shared this secret. It seems, in retrospect, that it would have been far, far easier to have told the truth at the time."

More here.

Reason's 2008 story, "Who Wrote Ron Paul's Newsletters?", documents Paul's changing accounts of the newsletters' authorship and the congressman's knowledge of their contents. Paul has said that he made a mistake by lending out his name to material that didn't reflect his views and that he didn't pay much attention to. That statement however is contravened by this 1995 video dug up by Andrew Kacynzski:

 

Around the 1.15 mark, Hot Air's Ed Morrissey notes, Paul starts promoting the newsletters to a Texas audience.

So, do the newsletters and Paul's shifting relationship to them invalidate his candidacy? Writing in The New Republic, James Kirchick, whose 2008 story first brought the issue to light, asks, "Why Don't Libertarians Care About Ron Paul's Bigoted Newsletters?" The question is wrong, however. While some libertarians plainly don't care about the newsletters or their odious claims about blacks, gays, and others, many do. Kirchick argues that whether Paul wrote or even read the newsletters (Paul has at times said he did not read them), his continuing engagement with 9/11 truthers and conspiracy-mongers such as Alex Jones and The John Birch Society is not an incidental part of his appeal:

Paul’s following is closely linked with the peculiar attractions of the libertarian creed that he promotes. Libertarianism is an ideology rather than a philosophy of government—its main selling point is not its pragmatic usefulness, but its inviolable consistency. In that way, Paul’s indulgence of bigotry—he says he did not write the newsletters but rather allowed others to do so in his name—isn’t an incidental departure from his libertarianism, but a tidy expression of its priorities: First principles of market economics gain credence over all considerations of social empathy and historical acuity. His fans are guilty of donning the same ideological blinders, giving their support to a political candidate on account of the theories he declaims, rather than the judgment he shows in applying those theories, or the character he has evinced in living them. Voters for Ron Paul are privileging logical consistency at the expense of moral fitness.

Well, no.

I'm sure that the vast majority of libertarians - and conservatives, Republicans, liberals, Democrats, etc. - who end up pulling a lever for Ron Paul are not ignoring the policies and legislation he has either authored or worked to enact. It is precisely in his concrete attempts to roll back the state - whether through pushing for an end to massive, endless, and uncritical increases in military spending and operations or by co-authoring (with Barney Frank) of the first attempt to end federal marijuana prohibition - that Paul captures the libertarian vote. His philosophical rhetoric and ideological consistency may be appealing to some, but it's really what he plans to deliver on that is motivating people to listen long and hard and show up at rallies.

The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has a pretty elegant formulation on this point:

What I want Paul detractors to confront is that he alone, among viable candidates, favors reforming certain atrocious policies, including policies that explicitly target ethnic and religious minorities. And that, appalling as it is, every candidate in 2012 who has polled above 10 percent is complicit in some heinous policy or action or association. Paul's association with racist newsletters is a serious moral failing, and even so, it doesn't save us from making a fraught moral judgment about whether or not to support his candidacy, even if we're judging by the single metric of protecting racial or ethnic minority groups, because when it comes to America's most racist or racially fraught policies, Paul is arguably on the right side of all of them. 

His opponents are often on the wrong side, at least if you're someone who thinks that it's wrong to lock people up without due process or kill them in drone strikes or destabilize their countries by forcing a war on drug cartels even as American consumers ensure the strength of those cartels. 

Even Obama, who has spoken so eloquently about the harm done by the drug war and lost civil liberties, is now on the wrong side of those issues, and shows no signs of reversing himself. As bad as the Paul newsletters are -- let me emphasize again that they are awful -- I can't persuade myself that they should carry more weight than war, or civil liberties, unless Paul in fact wrote them, which would mean that he is lying about his core philosophy of individualism, equality, pluralism, and opposition to bigoted laws. In that case, there would be no reason to trust him.

What a sad-but-true statement about 99 percent of politicians, including the sitting president and the top GOP contenders for the Republican nomination.

One of the reasons that the newsletters have not automatically made Paul radioactive among libertarians is that they do not sound like the guy, either in diction or tone. If Paul's published comments and legislative actions since his return to Congress had in any way confirmed the pathetic character of the newsletters, I can't imagine he'd be pulling the sorts of crowds he has been.

Reason's Brian Doherty, whose biography of Paul will appear in spring 2012, was on CNN's OutFront with Erin Burnett last night, talking about the congressman's growing popularity and appeal. As it happens, one of the other talkers was Gloria Borger, whose questioning of Paul so frustrated the guy he stopped the interview; even she seems pretty well disposed to the guy. Doherty is right that the appeal of Paul in the here and now has absolutely nothing to do with the newsletters and everything to do with the fact that he alone among Republicans (and Democrats) is providing an actual alternative to the status quo. As Doherty says, in an age of historic and chronic budget deficits, Paul is the only candidate talking about actually cutting spending; in a country tired of war and unabated increases in military spending, only Paul is talking about reducing the size and scope of armed forces and redirecting foreign policy; and in a country that never embraced bank bailouts and monetary policy that abetted the asset bubble that fueled the financial crisis, Paul was the first person to talk about auditing the Federal Reserve.

Paul is going to need to deal with the newsletter issue more directly than he has so far, especially if he doesn't want it to loom larger and larger as the stakes get higher. He is actually in control of the issues that most vex contemporary America, which have nothing to do with affirmative action, "racial terrorism," or the transmission of AIDS via saliva. He is running against Republicans who were for individual mandates in health care long before they were against them or who seriously invoke sharia law as a threat to the American way of life, and he faces a possible general election against a president with low approval ratings precisely because he passed his awful health care, bailout, and stimulus plans, among other things. As Friedersdorf argues, Paul actually has a far better record on matters that directly affect the minorities slagged so disturbingly in his newsletters.

As I've argued elsewhere and often, Paul is providing the alternative that Americans are craving in politics.That alternative, by definition, is going to discomfit conventional politicians and politicos who are more concerned with whether their party is in power than what is done with that power; with whether deficits and entitlements and "defense" spending will bankrupt the country; with whether Americans should be treated like adults when it comes to deciding what to eat, smoke, and drink. Paul is not the perfect vessel for a libertarian message, but waiting for perfection is something ideologues insist on. Most of us are far more interested in someone who at least has shown he understands the most pressing issues of the moment - and the future.

Whether Paul can fully deliver on the promise he's shown so far may well rest upon the way that he puts the newsletter issue to bed, once and for all.

Watch Doherty on CNN:

Reason on Ron Paul.