Thursday, December 29, 2011

How not to choose a presidental candidate: Ron Paul edition

(I'm doing some research on the late Dutch libertarian politician Pim Fortuyn; in doing so, I got sidetracked into reading much more about Ron Paul than I would recommend to anyone; I figured I might as well say something about what I read.)

As numerous news outlets have reported in recent weeks, late 1980s/early 1990s newsletters published in Ron Paul's name, with articles written in the first person, featured all kinds of racist, homophobic, and generally bigoted writing. James Kirchick wrote a good analysis of these newsletters in the The New Republic; some pdfs can be found here and here, and transcriptions here.

Paul has long claimed he did not write these newsletters, and that he was unaware of their content. (Julian Sanchez & David Weigel offer a good discussion of who might have written them in Reason.) Paul's protestations seem pretty implausible, given that a) the newsletters brought in a fair amount of income for him during those years, and b) he was even then clearly someone with political ambitions.

Paul also argues that all this is old news, and that this means, in turn, that he should not have to face questions about the newsletters anymore — indeed, he recently walked out of a CNN interview where he was asked about them. At the same time, he has long conceded that he has "moral responsibility" for content that went out under his name (Matt Welch, at Reason, has an overview of Paul's responses to questions about their content). If "moral responsibility" is to mean anything at all, shouldn't it mean precisely that you do have to continue to answer questions about it?

In any case, lots of people like Paul as a candidate because he seems principled and plain-spoken. This appears be at the heart of his support among many college students, as well as of the anguished (semi-)endorsements by Andrew Sullivan (since retracted) and Conor Friedersdorf.

They are attracted to Paul, it appears, despite all that is wrong with him. As Kirchick notes in the New York Times today, he may or may not be bigoted (depending on how one interprets the newsletters), but he is definitely an inveterate conspiracy theorist. Moreover, his economic theories are completely nutty. Still, as John Cassidy pointed out in the New Yorker yesterday, Paul has many supporters who are attracted to him not for his views or his past statements, but because of "his reputation as an outsider, a plain speaker, and a scourge of the political establishment." As one 18-year old student is quoted as saying "He's real. That's what makes the difference for me."

However, shouldn't these newsletters — and Paul's response to questions about them — make it quite clear that he is in fact neither "real" (he is obviously trying to spin those newsletters and their content) nor "principled" (unless the principle is a cynical willingness to spout even the most despicable opinions in an attempt to gain adherents for a nutty economic agenda)?

What we are left with, then is that Paul is better than his competitors at seeming real and principled. Apparently that is the 2012 election's version of 2004's whether one might like to have a beer with someone. Neither, I would argue, is how one should decide whom to vote for to run the country.