Dispatches from Des Moines

Ignoring the fine print of Ron Paul's campaign

by by Bess Kalb

An Elevator as an Apt Metaphor
The day before the first caucus, a young Iowan pseudo-goth waited for the elevator outside Ron Paul's campaign headquarters in Des Moines. As the down arrow lit up, a girl came from nowhere, pouncing on him.

"You caucusing tomorrow?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"You know Ron Paul wants all troops out of Iraq imm-ed-i-ately."
"Oh yeah?"
"And look." She handed him a brochure. "Paul wants to limit the government's control over our lives."
He stepped into the elevator nodding at the card. She followed him. So did I.
"Oh," he said, noticing the word "conservative" after the bolded "constitutional." "He's a Republican?"
"He's a Libertarian. It's conservative in the sense that..." She went on about small government and the troops in Iraq. She threw in something about stopping the IRS from "knocking down our doors."
He said he was raised a Democrat. He was just stopping by to see a friend.
"Plenty of Democrats have voted Paul. Now's the time for a President to end the war and free us from the system. The talk must stop. It's time to act."
He smiled. I winced. He ignored me. The elevator came to a stop.
"I like what he stands for," he said. And then, "I like this guy."

This incident was catchphrase marketing at its politicized best. Ron Paul will end the war. Ron Paul will keep your doors from being knocked down by bionic accountants. All conveyed in less time than it takes a teakettle to boil. The efficacy of the pitch and its reception by this one voter represents the route from ear-catching slogans to acceptance of a whole package-deal--a route that has proven improbably effective in bringing this fringe candidate out of obscurity. Events in Iowa make clear that Paul's success in garnering support, cash and primary votes comes largely from his ability to campaign under certain voguish and attractive banners--Return to Constitutionalism, Small Government, Anti-Interventionist--while upholding a radical and often contradictory agenda. Throughout a day among Ron Paul's volunteers, supporters and the Congressman himself, I found myself swept into a strange current of dogmatism that never seemed to lead to a consistent goal.

Which isn't to say that Ron Paul is unique in inspiring a blind faith in his supporters. At Barack Obama's New Year's Day rally in Des Moines, hundreds of Barackettes shrieked and clapped when Obama waved to the banner behind him and told us, "It's what we need: Change." Any effort on my part to engage other audience members in a discussion of the issues at hand would inevitably meet with the fiery affirmation that "it's time for change" and very little more. That Obama's most enthusiastic supporters might not be able to draw up a cost-benefit analysis of his healthcare policy reform proposal isn't quite the same, though, as Ron Paul's supporters' trusting the contract without pouring over the fine print.

These Obama fans merely parrot the Change idea to express a vaguely defined political paradigm shift that has (almost entirely) to do with party affiliation. Paul's supporters have principled disagreements with mainstream ideas and practices, but a day among them in Iowa gave the impression that many trusted Paul to deliver on grand, sweeping, philosophical issues while largely unaware of or uninterested in specific consequences of the Paul agenda.

At 7:00 Caucus eve, 600 people gathered in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Fort Des Moines for a Ron Paul event called "A Stronger America Rally." I approached a couple surrounded by their seven well-behaved young children. After the wife talked a bit about the family's dairy farm and the home-school she runs from her kitchen table, conversation moved to Ron Paul's plan to dismantle the Department of Education. Both thought it was a good way to limit government influence over American lives, but they gave tellingly different answers as to what would happen to children without public schools. "They'll all be home-schooled," said the wife, at which point her husband piped in, "The church will look out for them."

When a reporter asked an elderly couple why they supported Ron Paul, the husband mentioned Paul's veteran-friendly policies, such as employer tax credits for hiring veterans and allowing veterans to receive both disability and retirement pay. When the two were asked if they supported Paul's plan to abolish Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the wife shook her head and said, "I don't know about that." It's the same selective voting that allowed Ron Paul to hold a Congressional seat representing Texas' Gulf Coast counties while opposing FEMA relief.

A Gathering Storm
While it is unlikely that he will win the Republican nomination, Ron Paul's popularity has mounted in the past month. Although he finished fifth in Iowa, earning only 10 percent of the vote, he received nearly 8,000 more votes than Rudy Giuliani. In New Hampshire, Paul again placed fifth but managed to elbow out Fred Thompson, earning 18,303 votes to Thompson's candidacy-ending 2,886. Paul rose to fourth place in Michigan and took second place in Nevada--by far his campaign's greatest coup.

Paul's finances reflect a frenzy among his supporters that isn't apparent from his standing in the polls. As of December 31, Ron Paul had raised $19,765,974 in the fourth quarter of his campaign, bringing him to roughly $28 million total. These donations came from 130,000 donors, including over 100,000 new contributors, and gave Paul more money than any other Republican candidate in the final quarter.

On November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, Ron Paul broke fundraising records when supporters spread a viral Youtube video that associated Fawkes's anti-authoritarianism and the film V for Vendetta with Congressman Paul. "Remember, remember the fifth of November!" chanted the clip, and donors remembered handsomely. That day, Paul raised $4.2 million in online contributions from more than 37,000 donors. His backers again used historical acts of revolution to resonate with their cause when on December 16, 2007, the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, he raised just over $6 million--more than any single day fundraising total in campaign history. He has raised more money from more people than any other candidate, all with a much lower average donation amount.

The Congressman Inspires Hope, Expletives
There would be little merit in arguing that shrewd or duplicitous marketing is all that convinces PayPal-accessing voters and teenagers in elevators to unknowingly embrace a candidate who plans to abolish Welfare, Medicare, Social Security, The Department of Education, The Department of Health and any governmental agencies who combat global warming and preserve the environment; dismantle FEMA; overturn Roe v. Wade; leave the UN; and return the currency system to the gold standard.
Rather, it seems that Paul's relative success can be attributed to a voting base that is easily marketed to. It's less the cynical campaigning of the candidate than the disillusionment of his society and its readiness for a revolutionary re-thinking of the system. In a race in which candidates peddle the notion of Change, Ron Paul promises total upheaval. His campaign slogan is the word "Revolution," and considering the scope of his grievances and the rebellious pitch of the Americans he inspires, the term is hardly an exaggeration.

"Why do you support Ron Paul?" I asked one young volunteer on the street outside Paul HQ. "The way shit is," he said, "how could I not?" According to a CNN entrance poll from the Iowa Caucus, of the voters who answered they felt angry about the Bush administration, more voted for Ron Paul than for all the other Republican candidates combined. Frank Luntz said it best in a November 1, 2007 Time Magazine article: "His supporters are the equivalent of crabgrass. It's not the grass you want, and it spreads faster than the real stuff. They just like him because he's the most anti-Establishment of all the candidates, the most likely to look at the camera during the debates and say, 'Hey, Washington, f[uck] you.'"

And though Paul inspires vehement support, he pulls it off without off-putting Deaniac rage. Dr. Ron Paul seems to be more of a principled ideologue than a Capitol Hill shark, a novelty in this arena. Almost a throwback. In person, the man is Pixar's grandfatherly chess player in a power suit. He addresses reporters with the ease of a man who doesn't need a handler or focus team to tell him how he should answer a question.
His best selling points come from his internally consistent doctrine. Ron Paul doesn't want to end the war to appease a party base or cater to polls, but because he doesn't believe it's the government's role to be in Iraq. Or anywhere else, for that matter. In keeping true to his laissez-utterly-faire theory, Paul wants the US to withdraw all military forces from all international bases. Everywhere. In the same way that Mike Huckabee represents a return to populist love-thy-(American, Christian)neighbor Republicanism, Ron Paul promises to find the Hamiltonian small-government conservatism that's been reduced to rubble under the current administration's executive over-reaching.

This Ron Paul, the Champion of Laissez-Faire Constitutionalism, found a welcome audience at his January 2 rally. Phil, an Air Force Reserve from Missouri who came to Iowa as a student volunteer for Paul, was surrounded by a cluster of head-nodding people when he said, "[Paul] follows the Constitution. The president has to go to Congress to declare war. That's the way it's set up to be, and that's the way it should be. And if we followed that policy, I think we'd have a better world for our country and all countries around the world."

But Paul's immigration policy, no small pillar of his candidacy, comes in direct conflict with the Constitution. While the 14th Amendment grants citizenship to all people born in the United States, regardless of their parents' citizenship standing, border state congressman Ron Paul would deny citizenship to any child born to an illegal immigrant mother. This is a telling example of the larger issue of Paul lovers loving despite policy that goes directly against what they profess to love.

Our Flag is Still There
By 7:30 on the night before the caucus in the grand ballroom at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, the audience had taken their seats and the press had focused their cameras toward a podium under a gigantic American flag. The chandeliers dimmed, and attention was directed to large screens showing a documentary about the Revolutionary War battle at Fort McHenry. When the narrator explained that the Revolutionary Guard's stamina came from "the knowledge that good Christian men would rather die on their feet than live on their knees," some rose to their feet in applause.

When a former POW led the country in the pledge of allegiance, the man next to me said "under God" several decibels louder than the preceding lines and veritably shouted "Liberty and Justice for all." Here we were, unfairly taxed by a latter-day King George, ready to fight for an America that deserves better.

Paul began his address with this: "What makes me so excited about this is that we're philosophically oriented. We believe in something. We believe in something worth fighting for." Hundreds of heads nodded, and "we" were left to project our beliefs, our hundreds of separate beliefs, onto some glorious fight.

All the kids want to do these days is lie around on waterbeds and smoke that goddamn marrywanna... yeah, and just between you and me BESS KALB '09.5 that's probably all for the best.