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In a startling break with tradition, Ron Paul took a few quick jabs at his Republican rivals on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Friday. Asked his opinion of Michele Bachmann, who Paul had clashed with earlier in the week over the question of a nuclear Iran, Paul said Bachmann “hates Muslims” and “wants to go get them.”
Leno asked Paul his opinion of Rick Santorum, asking whether he talked about anything other than gay people. “Gay people and Muslims,” Paul quipped.
He said Romney was a nice guy who maybe should stay in Massachusetts and that Jon Huntsman is “thoughtful.”
Up to this point, Paul has kept his opinions mostly to himself. His comments have caused quite a stir. “Of course I don’t hate Muslims,” Bachmann told ABC News adding “that’s an absolutely outrageous statement.”
Bachmann told moderators in last week’s Iowa debate that Paul’s positions on Iran were ‘dangerous.’ Paul had warned of the dangers of an American overreaction to the supposed threat of a nuclear bomb being developed in Iran.
So what to make of all this?
Well, first off it means that Paul is pulling no punches in the last few weeks before the Iowa Caucuses which are set for January 3rd. Right now the congressman from Texas is tied in first place in the polls, after a long, slow, but steady climb.
Meanwhile Newt Gingrich’s spotlight seems to be fading, while Romney’s front-runner position remains shaky. This puts Paul in the unique position of surging in the polls just in the nick of time. If he can break that voter ceiling he might be able to win in Iowa, possibly pushing him into front-runner status across the country, especially if Huntsman hurts Romney and Gingrich in New Hampshire.
A Paul win in Iowa and a Huntsman win in New Hampshire would throw this race into chaos – but a particularly good brand of chaos. Huntsman has been trailing badly for the duration of the race so far, and Paul has been laughed off by much of the press and the conservative intelligentsia.
Even now, with Paul neck and neck in Iowa, the big guns in conservative media are working furiously to discredit the congressman. “I think right now anybody other than Ron Paul could beat Obama if the election were tomorrow – easily,” said Rush Limbaugh on his radio program.
“Well, and the Ron Paul people aren’t going to like me saying this,” said Chris Wallace of Fox News, “but, to a certain degree, it will discredit the Iowa caucuses because, rightly or wrongly, I think most of the Republican establishment thinks he is not going to end up as the nominee. So, therefore, Iowa won’t count and it will go on.”
Conservative pundit David Frum writes:
Paul has had an outsize appeal to writers and intellectuals dissatisfied with the present state of Republicanism.
Some see him as a corrective to militaristic nationalism. Or as a principled champion of limited government. Or as a leader who can curb the excessive influence of social conservatives.
Those perceptions are not very realistic, but leave that pass for now. More to the point – even if true, which they are not, these are not the correctives present-day Republicanism most needs. The thing most wrong with present-day Republicanism is its passivity in the face of the economic crisis, its indifference to the economic troubles of the huge majority of the American population, and its blithe insistence that everything was fine for the typical American worker up until Inauguration Day 2009 or (at the outer bound of the thinkable) the financial crisis of the fall 2008.
It is the lack of concern to the travails of middle-class America that “reform Republicans” should most centrally be concerned with.
And no candidate in this race – ok, except maybe the defunct Herman Cain – has been more persistently, aggressively, and forcefully heedless of those travails than Ron Paul.
Frum is critical of Paul’s monetary policy and his libertarianism more broadly – which is understandable, since David is not a libertarian himself but rather a moderate and a hawkish moderate at that. To be fair, I’m not particularly fond of Paul’s monetary policy either. On this question I’m largely in agreement with Frum. The challenges of this particular economic downturn can’t be solved through austerity alone, even if austerity over the long haul is a worthy and important goal.