Mugger: Paulitics As Usual

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Usually, when we have friends over for dinner, the subject of politics is delicately glossed over—especially after a couple of bottles of wine—since it can only lead to trouble. One evening last week, however, as the first snow of the season was falling, which resulted in a cheery mood, seven of us at the dining room table actually had a civil conversation about the presidential campaign. The breakdown of current favorites was all over the map—two for McCain, two for Clinton, one Obama booster and two for Ron Paul—and I’m guessing it was the enthusiasm expressed by the pair of high schoolers for Paul’s candidacy that transformed the chat from one of partisan bitterness to amiable curiosity.

Paul, of course, is the quasi-libertarian Republican Congressman from Texas who’s presently raising millions of dollars on the Internet, cementing his legacy as the first techie/YouTube personality in American politics. (Not that Paul, 72, completely comprehends his sudden emergence on the web; this is a guy who last summer, as Chris Caldwell reported in the Times magazine last summer, didn’t know who Jon Stewart was and wasn’t familiar with GQ, the glossy monthly that wanted to interview him.) Four years ago, Howard Dean was the first to exploit the riches of the web, but he was a traditional left-leaning Democrat who, once accepted as a legitimate contender, slipped easily into the pack journalism lexicon of the mainstream media.

The unassuming Paul, a doctor who confounds reporters with his idiosyncratic—and a little weird, in my opinion—views is far more difficult to pigeonhole. It’s not just that he’s attracting Americans from the left (Paul advocates immediate withdrawal from Iraq) and right (he’d abolish the IRS), since previous “grass roots” candidates, most recently Ross Perot in ’92, have had a large degree of crossover appeal. Paul, who has yet to reach double digits in the vast majority of polls, isn’t going to win the Republican nomination, but anyone who dismisses his impact on the early primaries (especially in New Hampshire, where registered independents can determine the outcome) is paying too much attention to Hillary’s crumbling inevitability and Mike Huckabee’s Elmer Gantry routine.

What’s really significant about the Paul campaign is that he’s attracting younger voters (and those who’ll be eligible to vote in 2012), the first wave of Americans who, regardless of their intelligence, have grown up without the habit of regularly reading print newspapers and magazines. The organization of Paul’s effort is spread out among a diverse group of disaffected citizens, of all ages, but it’s a rough blueprint of how presidential politics will be conducted in the near future, and the role of media pundits who make their living either boosting or skewering politicians will be further diminished. After all, how many people under 25 do you know who never miss Tim Russerts’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday mornings or who’ve even heard of the Times’ David Brooks?

My older son, 15, is well-informed about current events yet he ignores the home-delivered copies of the Times and Wall Street Journal, and gets all his news on the Internet, which is where he discovered, and then embraced, Paul’s improbable quest for the presidency. I asked why, and he replied that the Congressman “is the antithesis of the traditional politician. He has integrity, says what he really believes and isn’t controlled by consultants or daily tracking polls. He’s firmly against invasion of privacy by the government and won’t waste money on unnecessary wars.” When I tell him that Paul is anti-abortion and wants to build a fence to keep out illegal immigrants, he paused, and said, “Well, Dad, you’re for McCain and certainly don’t agree with all of his positions.” At his fairly liberal high school, he reports, Paul would easily win a straw poll vote.

The youth vote, which has largely been elusive for candidates for at least a generation—and is a source of concern for Obama, who fears his celebrity won’t necessarily translate into a massive turnout at the ballot box—could actually become a real factor in future elections if college kids and young adults perceive that the hated “politics as usual” is dead. Becoming involved in the political process, through the new media, might be more appealing once dinosaurs like Charlie Cook are snuffed out.

The Cook Political Report publisher, who may be the most quoted analyst in newspaper stories, told a reporter of the Washington-based newspaper The Hill last week, “My hunch is the votes [Paul] does get don’t really come at anyone else’s expense, they’re more fringe voters coming in from the sidelines, some driven by war, others by libertarian views… I don’t think he’s going to be a serious factor anywhere.”

Maybe, maybe not, but Cook’s dismissing Paul as an “insurgent” like Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader, who didn’t have the fund-raising and communication tools that are now available. Imagine if Nader’s campaign in 2000 was able to tap into the Internet omnipresence that exists today: given the passion of the Naderites who knows how that election would’ve turned out.
Ron Paul is an accidental model for what may become the new politics. As Caldwell reported, the courtly Congressman never travels alone with women and once chastised an aide for referring to a “red-light” district in front of a female colleague. No matter, he’s still raised over $10 million this quarter, a figure that will increase with his website’s “money bomb” on Dec. 16 (the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party).

Anyone who follows politics even casually is bombarded by the complaint of too many “reality show” debates, too much lobbyist/union money and too many polls and consultants. The Times regularly editorializes, with disgust, about the excess of money in the permanent campaign, and, in fact, 2008 could be the last year that a presidential race is conducted in its current form. Should Ron Paul have even modest success at screwing up the strategies of his opponents, next time around—and one can only imagine the power of the Internet in four years—will be a far more interesting, and perhaps less scripted, campaign.

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