The world’s most frightening reality show is about to get a new star. On January 3, the 2012 Republican race for the presidential nomination will enter new phase as the voters of Iowa choose their preferred candidate. Up until now, the campaign has been all televised debates and pundit pontificating. Now the people get their say and, according to the polls, the very likely winner will be a 75-year-old obstetrician, beloved of Jon Stewart and urban hipsters, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. For the Republican party establishment, this is the worst possible result.
Few Republicans this time around arouse much passion. Paul, who ran for president four years ago, has supporters who tattoo his craggy visage on their bodies. This will serve him well in Iowa, which is a caucus state. In normal elections, voters just line up, cast their ballot, and then go home. In Iowa, they must meet in schools or church halls all over the state and debate their preferences with their neighbours through the night. This obviously penalises shallow support and few (other than the candidates themselves) dream of a Mitt Romney or a Newt Gingrich presidency.
Ron Paul is different. In a pack where one candidate is described as “George W. Bush without the brains” and another led the campaign to impeach a president for having sex with an intern at the same time as he was having sex with a secretary, Paul has integrity. Most Republicans blather incessantly about big government but are always on the lookout to grab government money for the benefit of their constituents or contributors. Ron Paul is an uncommon politician. A right wing libertarian, he wants to legalise pot, he was one of the few congressman on either side of the aisle who voted against the Iraq war, he is against corporate welfare as well as the regular kind. No wonder he inspires devotion.
The Republican establishment is already pre-emptively spinning Iowa as an anomaly, Paul as a fringe candidate with no possibility of taking the nomination. I think this underestimates both America’s disillusionment with its political class and the importance of momentum. Winning Iowa brings attention and I suspect many Republican voters all over the country will be charmed by Paul’s forthrightness.
This is not necessarily a good thing for my country. Paul might by one of the few Republicans whose company you would enjoy around the Christmas dinner table, one who is driven by the power of ideas, one whose naked ambition isn’t a tad embarrassing. But that doesn’t mean he would make a good president. His desire to cut federal spending by $1 trillion, to eviscerate the Federal Reserve, to return America to the Gold Standard would be nothing short of disastrous.
Sometimes consistency is another word for blindness. No one (other than the bankers) enjoyed bailing out AIG, Goldman Sachs, Citibank et al back in 2008. It was certainly not the ideal solution. But if the government had let the bankers get their just deserts, and if Ben Bernanke had allowed the global financial architecture to collapse, the savings of hundreds of millions of us would have disappeared, world GDP would have fallen precipitously, and unemployment would probably still be over 20 per cent. Although the Republican party elite fears Paul even more than they despise Obama, that should not blind us the dangerousness of his ideas. Nonetheless, his emergence is momentous and signals the rise of an angry populism that may transform this election year and indeed, the rest of the decade.