By Brian Doherty
With Jon Huntsman's two votes doubling Ron Paul's one in New Hampshire's first-reporting Dixville Notch, the latest wave of media attempts to downplay the significance of the nearly or more than 20 percent of the electorate who seem interested in voting for the supposedly unquestionably unelectable and confusingly ideological Ron Paul is now about Jon Huntsman (who swept the early "earnestly intellectual middlebrow magazine feature writer" primary back before any American outside Utah had any idea who he was).
Our old Reason colleague Dave Weigel at Slate on Saturday noted that Huntsman seems to be fighting with Paul over winning over disaffected independents unhappy with Obama. Various other libertarians who can't quite tolerate Ron Paul for various reasons have seemed (largely in social networking mode rather than considered public statements) more interested in Huntsman than have this possible disaffected liberal/progressive band who might conceivably enter the GOP scrum to send Obama a message.
That Huntsman might pull ahead of Paul into second today in New Hampshire has been widely said with very little evidence, which certainly feeds into the Paul fan paranoid narrative that the media is desperate for anyone-but-Paul to become the anointed anyone-but-Romney. I am even now watching cable tv pundits, presenting the current 20-13 Paul-Huntsman polling, still talking as if Huntsman beating him is reasonable to expect today. I'm not saying it is impossible; I will say that as of now there is no good reason to believe it, even after Dixville Notch.
Weigel, similarly based on wishful thinking and no data, writes that liberals or moderates interested in the GOP race could "go with Huntsman, who can win, beat Barack Obama and shut down the last 11 years of foreign policy clown shows." It may be that Dave is summing up what he sees Huntsman as saying rather than saying he believes it himself; I hope so. Look at the most recent GOP vs. Obama polls yourself to see whether there is reason to believe Huntsman could beat Obama where Paul could not. I don't want to ruin the surprise.
Why do I think Huntsman can't pull Paul's people? (Huntsman won't even be on the ballot in Virginia or Arizona.) Paul, unlike Huntsman, has a coherent, wide-ranging, principled worldview about politics, a worldview expressed and acted on in a variety of existing institutions, books, news and commentary sites: Paul has a political movement. To paraphrase something Thomas Woods, author of the New York Times best-seller Meltdown promoting the Paulite view of Federal Reserve responsibility for the economic crisis, said Saturday night at a mini-Paul rally in a Manchester pool hall: no one says that discovering Jon Huntsman changed their whole view of the world and sent them on a life-changing intellectual odyssey through a coherent and thrilling world of books and ideas. (Woods said it about Romney. It applies equally to Huntsman, considered against Paul.) Even Huntsman's supposed anti-interventionism is more confused and weak than Paul's.
What Paul has that Huntsman does not have is, well, libertarianism. That's something, believe it or not libertarians punchdrunk from decades of being a hated tiny minority, that now has great electoral power. Enough electoral power yet to win the GOP nomination, or even caucuses or primaries? Doesn't seem like it yet, but I've learned over the past five years to not underestimate the strange electoral power of Ron Paul.
Someone out to help Huntsman wasn't underestimating it. I'm sure you are all familiar with one of those dominate-the-news-for-four-hours stories from last week, with a clumsily dumb attack ad on Huntsman made (absolutely unconvincingly, except of course for a wide variety of professional reporters who applied not a second of that famously mythical "if your mother says she loves you check it out" journalistic shoe leather) to seem as if Paul fans had made it.
There was never any reason to believe it. The ad arose from a YouTube account and group name "NHLiberty4Paul" that had never had any public presence before, no Paul fan had ever shown a sign of thinking Huntsman was of interest to them, it was circulated not through any of the many existing channels where Paul fans gather and talk but rather from Huntsman's own campaign, Huntsman made much anti-Paul hay from it. Although it's hard to learn who is responsible for things posted on YouTube, there is more reason to think a Huntsman partisan was responsible than that a Paul one was.
Rachel Maddow won points from me for admitting in a segment on this mini controversy that political dirty tricks actually do exist:
It has been amusing to see the Huntsman-supporting PAC Our Destiny grab hard for some intellectual space that had until now been one of Paul's unique peculiarities as a politician. This point is discussed at length in my forthcoming book Ron Paul's Revolution: Paul's willingness to admit that America isn't the richest freest most wonderful nation on Earth that will do just fine if we just get rid of the other party, but that in fact we face some potentially very dark days ahead as the result of our profligate monetary, fiscal, and foreign policies. (Politico talks on this theme today.) Paul has pointed out to me that strangely his occasional quasi-apocalyptic gloom cheers up his young fans, because he also presents them with some solid history and theory explaining how things can get better with the application of free-markets and non-intervention.
But check out this pro-Huntsman Our Destiny ad in which they play the Paul circa 2008 "why haven't we heard of this guy before?" card and also claim that the world is literally--literally!!--collapsing!: