Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)
If at any point during the past three decades you had suggested that Ron Paul might win a major Republican nominating contest, you'd probably get a response resembling the face the Texas congressman makes when he's outlining the case for legalizing the sale of raw milk: two parts incredulity, one part mild amusement, a dash of electric shock.
And yet, with the Iowa caucuses one month out, the odds have never been better for the septuagenarian libertarian icon. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, a good barometer of DC wisdom, suggested on Wednesday that Paul might even be a serious contender for the nomination if he would just "hedge his foreign policy views." By which he means: Cut back on the isolationism and whisper more sweet nothings about Israel. (Paul's already taken steps toward the latter.)
Paul might just win Iowa. As Red State founder Erick Erickson points out, he's worked the state harder than almost anyone else and honed his message to appeal to corn belt conservatives (the raw milk line is a winner). But that doesn’t make him a serious contender. As Politico’s Maggie Haberman and others have pointed out, Paul's candidacy has a clear ceiling. Until his opponents start talking about the following issues, you'll know Paul isn't a serious threat:
The newsletters: Since 1978, Paul published and sold a newsletter (known alternatively as Ron Paul's Political Report, Ron Paul's Survival Report, and Ron Paul's Freedom Report) to tens of thousands of libertarians scattered across the country. Especially in the beginning, it played into the concerns of a certain kind of conservative white guy. As the New Republic reported, the newsletters suggest Paul is "not the plain-speaking antiwar activist his supporters believe they are backing—but rather a member in good standing of some of the oldest and ugliest traditions in American politics." Some excerpts:
"[Although] we are constantly told that it is evil to be afraid of black men, it is hardly irrational. Black men commit murders, rapes, robberies, muggings and burglaries all out of proportion to their numbers."
"Given the inefficiencies of what D.C. laughingly calls the 'criminal justice system,' I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."
"[B]lack males age 13 who have been raised on the streets and who have joined criminal gangs are as big, strong, tough, scary, and culpable as any adult and should be treated as such."
Paul defended the newsletters' racist content when it was first brought up by his opponent in a 1996 congressional race—standing by, for instance, charges that Democratic Rep. Barbara Jordan, the state's first black congresswoman, was granted favorable treatment because of her race. His statements were "academic, tongue-in-cheek," he said of the newsletters, and were not meant to be taken at face value.
It wasn't until five years later that Paul offered an alibi, claiming that the newsletters had been ghostwritten. As he told Texas Monthly's S.C. Gwynne, "They were never my words, but I had some moral responsibility for them…I actually really wanted to try to explain that it doesn't come from me directly, but they [campaign aides] said that's too confusing. 'It appeared in your letter and your name was on that letter and therefore you have to live with it.'"
It's a confusing alibi, to say the least: Why would Paul's campaign prefer he take credit for racist comments he didn't write? Even if he never wrote the newsletters, he had no qualms profiting off of their contents for decades. The fact that none of his presidential opponents since then have raised the newsletters as an issue is a sign they simply don't take him seriously.
Drugs: Believe it or not, but calling for wholesale drug legalization is still not a winning platform in a Republican presidential campaign. But that's been Paul’s position for decades now. His 1996 opponent, Charles "Lefty" Morris, ran an advertisement featuring Paul's rousing speech to the 1988 National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) convention: "Let's get rid of the drug dealers by getting rid of all the drug laws."
The Civil Rights Act: The good news is that Paul says he won't take any steps to undo it. But he is adamantly opposed to it, and says he wouldn't have voted for it. Sure, holding that same position didn't stop his son Rand from winning a US Senate seat in Kentucky in 2012, but it certainly didn't help him.
Scorched earth: At various points in his career, Paul has expressed his desire to eliminate: welfare, the income tax, farm subsidies, paper currency, public schools, the 14th amendment, the War on Drugs, Social Security, NATO, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI, the CIA, FEMA, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the departments of education, energy, commerce, housing and urban development, health and human services, and homeland security. (He's not totally convinced the National Park Service should be there, either.)
The point? You can find plenty of Republicans who will agree with some of those ideas. But while Republicans might not mind downsizing HUD, his pledge to eliminate prominent national security agencies is a very fast route to a concession speech. There's a reason Rick Perry narrowed his wish list down to just three.
Pork: Ron Paul has spent most of his energy in Washington fighting what he considers frivolous spending (which is most of it). But as Josh Harkinson has reported, he's done nothing to stop the steady stream of government money entering his own Texas district. Federal funding for Paul's district has quadrupled since 1999.
Tin foil hat: Paul is a regular guest on the radio show of conspiracy theory guru Alex Jones, and there's a good deal of evidence that he shares some of Jones' paranoia. At a debate in 2007, for instance, he warned that the federal government was secretly plotting to form a North American Union with Canada and Mexico and was already constructing a massive highway and high-tech corridor to connect our northern and southern neighbors: "These are real things; it's not as if somebody made these up. It's not a conspiracy. They don't talk about it and they might not admit it, but there's been money spent on it." I'll let Chris Hayes walk you through the fine points, but suffice to say there is no such thing as a NAFTA superhighway.
Values: Paul, who by his own count delivered over 4,000 babies as a doctor, is adamantly pro-life. Like many abortion opponents, he can even trace the exact moment of his conversion—as he explained in a recent campaign ad, he found an aborted fetus sticking out of a trash can at his hospital one day: "Who are we to decide that we pick and throw one away and…[we] struggle to save the other ones?" But he's gone on record as saying that, once Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion should be left to the states. He's taken the same stance on gay marriage, stating that he opposes it, but that the federal government shouldn't even be in the business of marriage. It's the reason why Bob Vander Plaats, head of Iowa's top social conservative organization, said he wouldn't even consider endorsing Paul.
He's 76: Energetic and in good health, Paul doesn't look a day over 74, but he's nearly four years older than John McCain was on inauguration day, 2009, and nine years old than Ronald Reagan when he was first elected. Paul would be the oldest president ever elected. None of his Republican rivals have brought up the age issue yet. But, once again, that's because they don't think they need to.