First, let's agree that there is no observer of the political scene wiser or righter than the embittered libertarian. He has witnessed the grandest of his dreams sputter out on the launchpad; he has watched his mildest expectations take flight and then explode into a thousand irregular chunks that melt the tarmac. He has watched the Libertarian Party splinter over that epoch-shifting question: Dave Bergland or Earl Ravenal? He has winced as the LP nominated, as its 2004 presidential candidate, the only man in America who could win even fewer popular votes than Ralph Nader in the late, brain-jellying stages of his dementia.
It was an embittered libertarian who told me to fear the Ron Paul 2008 campaign. Early in February, a few short weeks after Paul confirmed he'd be making the run, my source shelled peanuts and slugged beers and waved the red flag of doom.
"It's going to get ugly," he said.
"We really don't know that," I countered. "Chuck Hagel is just shadowboxing, so Paul will be the only anti-war Republican candidate. He's going to confuse the hell out of the other Republicans at the debates. At best, what's he trying to do: Shift the debate three or four inches over to the libertarian side on the war, on whether or not we should have a Department of Education?"
"Maybe he could, if he got to talk about that," he said. "He won't get to talk about that. Once the 1988 campaign gets rehashed, once people start digging through his old Ron Paul Letters, then what's his campaign going to be about?"
He quieted down for his final point. This was obviously what kept him up nights. "At the end of this, if you say you're a libertarian, are people going to say 'Oh, like Ron Paul?' And are you going to want them to say that?"
That was February, this is May, and libertarians aren't ready to answer that question. When Brian Doherty blogged the first news of the Paul campaign, he titled it "Ron, Run, Run!" Justin Raimondo zoomed in for a high-five, writing that Paul "opposed this rotten war from the very beginning–and, what's going to be delightful, is that he is not going to be outdone by any Democrat regarding the Iraq issue." Daniel Larison, whose ever-present aura of gloom is powerful enough to drive a Care Bear to suicide, found a hidden reserve of giddiness: "Finally, a candidate worth supporting!" That's three comments off the top of the blogosphere and they reflect the tens of thousands of "hell yeah!" cheers from libertarians and paleoconservatives long ready to give up on the GOP.
The Internet started out as a haven for Paul support and there's no sign of that ever changing. The fall-down feebleness of the leading GOP candidates has played a role: Discount the boom for Fred Thompson, whose mighty vocal chords act on right-wing bloggers the way high-pitch whistles act on dogs, and the online enthusiasm for Paul completely outmatches the rest of the field. Paul's main site, his YouTube channel, his grassroots fan sites and the small hubs of support on left-wing, anti-war sites rattle with extra traffic whenever he appears on TV or in a debate.
That success hasn't spilled over into the other lanes of the 2008 trail. The opinion leaders of the campaign– reporters, TV spinners, party officials–consider Paul an irritant and a kook. And the heat on Paul increases in tandem with his profile. After the first Republican debate (held on MSNBC), pundits and bloggers complained about Paul's legions flooding Internet polls and making it sound like he'd won. After the second debate, when Paul said U.S. foreign policy (specifically in Iraq) had inspired terrorists to plan the 9/11 attacks and he refused to "withdraw the statement" even though Rudy Giuliani asked him to, Paul's opponents loaded up their guns and started slamming triggers.
First, a 1996 Houston Chronicle article on Paul's last competitive campaign for Congress circled through the blogosphere. The New York Sun's Ryan Sager (a reason contributor) reprinted racist comments gleaned from Paul's newsletter, the exact stuff my nihilistic libertarian chum had warned me about before Paul's campaign got any attention. Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters circulated the comments, adding "real conservatives don't propose to create special distinctions of criminals based on the color of their skin. (Neither do real libertarians, for that matter.)"
Next, Michelle Malkin (another reason contributor–if the Paul campaign was truly conspiracy-minded, they'd start banning us from events) did a modicum of digging and, in her mind, at least, uncovered Paul's connections to 9/11 conspiracy groups. As was hashed out in excruciating detail on Hit & Run this weekend, Malkin appeared on Fox News' The Big Story and claimed that Paul was "appearing on campus" with so-called 9/11 Truth groups. Even after some basic research and calls to both sides (the Truthers and Paul's camp) shredded Malkin's claims, the charges flitted around the blogosphere and Malkin herself pushed the idea that Paul, at the very least, was flirting with the Truth groups at his events. An audience of more than 2 million people–about as many as watched the second GOP debate–were told that Paul "was caught on tape talking to a leader of the conspiracy group Student Scholars for 9/11 Truth." The blockbuster tape was actually put online by the group, not a muckraking journalist, and Paul's controversial debate quote made it absolutely clear that he blamed Muslim terrorists, not Mossad or controlled demolitions, for the 9/11 attacks. Still, good enough for the No Spin Zone.
The Paul campaign has absorbed all the attention and tried to spin it back, its basic stance being that any attention is good attention. "It's interesting, isn't it?" Rep. Paul told me on Thursday. "They've already said I have no chance in the world, I don't show up in the polls, I don't mean anything. Why would they make such an effort to go after me?"
Obvious: People who disagree with Paul want to boot him out of the race. Libertarians who've excused Paul's sometime stumbles with the English language or his offensive (and now repudiated) quotes about race or his fixation on the Amero currency can keep excusing that if Paul appears in the debates and kicks up only a little dirt. If he gets into another tussle with a frontrunner or if the campaign actually starts gaining ground in some state polls, Paul's controversies won't stay obscure.
This isn't a dream scenario. In 2004, Dennis Kucinich got no serious media coverage and a few table scraps of endorsements. The only ones anyone remembers were deathless campaign finance reformer Granny D and a children's book character. Yet in the Feb 7 Washington state primary, Kucinich got 8.2 percent of the vote. One day later in Maine he got 15.8 percent of the vote. He came within 650 votes of winning the tiny Hawaii caucus. In the last months of the campaign, when the rest of the field had dropped out in order to maximize their time kissing John Kerry's ring, Kucinich racked up thousands of votes and a total of 64 delegates, locking in a speaking slot at the Democratic convention.
What will happen if Paul actually starts winning votes, or if Mitt Romney takes a poll and Paul is the margin of error between him and John McCain? Obviously, he'll be hit with everything he's ever said and every off-kilter idea he's ever proposed. People who want him in the race because he's forcing the anti-war or government-cutting gospel into the race will be, by extension, smeared. To explain this scenario, I offer the Paul Paradox:
– If Paul's campaign gathers no momentum, his impact on the presidential race will be minor and salutary.
– If Paul's campaign gathers momentum, he will be swiftly and horrifyingly destroyed by brickbats hurled from every bunker in the 2008 field.
We can shorten this to one sentence: The success of Ron Paul's message is inversely proportional to the support his campaign receives.
It's a looming crisis and I'm not sure anyone–maybe not even the oppo-research arms of the big campaigns–is ready for it. But having endured the first round of exposes, it's worth debating what Paul has done for the profile of anti-war libertarians. The knock on the candidate from hecklers like Saul Anuzis, the chair Michigan Republican Party who briefly launched a petition against letting poor Paul play any more reindeer games, was that Paul "would have felt much more comfortable on the stage with the Democrats." One revelation from that statement: The people who run the modern GOP no longer consider isolationists part of their party. The other revelation: They have forgotten that the Libertarian Party exists. Libertarians didn't have a political standard-bearer that the media cared about, and now they do.
So far Paul's parlayed the new media attention into a decent level of prominence. When Paul first appeared on Bill Maher's Real Time series, the self-described libertarian host wasted five minutes quizzing him about the Civil War, happily pigeonholing him as a kook. After the Fox News debate, Maher called Paul "my new hero." Tonight, Paul will be on Maher's show aside P.J. O'Rourke and Ben Affleck, debating politics on the in-studio panel. His campaign can thrive with this level of attention. But if it starts showing up in the polls, and Paul becomes worth "exposing," you know what to expect.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.