Those who witnessed the Iowa caucuses four years ago reported two phenomena: the impressively well oiled Obama operation on the ground and the surge of grassroots support for him that very few had anticipated. In retrospect, it seems easier to understand the unattractiveness of Hillary Clinton as the inevitable candidate who would usher in a marginal flip back to the Democratic version of business-as-usual. She represented amorphous centrism, for some (complicity, for others) rather than a clean break with the disastrous W years, most starkly symbolized by her endorsement of the Iraq aggression and conquest. Obama captured the yearning for a new approach.
Well, we know how that turned out, but the yearning hasn’t gone away, and if anything is stronger than ever on both sides of the red-blue divide. That, I believe, contributes to the Republican base’s inability to lose its virginity to the Mitt: they know he’ll be a good provider, but there’s no passion. He’s predictable, pragmatic and exudes perfect-hair more-of-the-sameness.
I suspect this year’s surprise is going to be Ron Paul, the marginalized, ignored, and mocked candidate treated as mostly a joke. He’s blunt, uncompromising, lively, and consistently radical, yet he doesn’t sound nasty or mean-spirited like the others. His campaign ads display a youthful, hip aesthetic, and his libertarian views set him apart from the Washington establishment, which constantly does him the favor of pretending he doesn’t exist or shouldn’t—a reaction not lost on voters.
Alone among the GOP contenders, he thinks wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere are a bad idea, and he dares to suggest decriminalizing drugs along with dismantling whole government departments and smashing the Federal Reserve. For a confused teen with an anti-government worldview, this odd combination can make a lot of sense.
Paul’s poll numbers are already substantial in Iowa, and the caucuses are a month away. The Grinch is riding high, but the recent spotlight should burn off a good deal of his sudden luster. Romney remains Romney, alas, and the others have speed-dated themselves into the back corners of the dance hall. In an electoral season with more volatility than the Dow Jones industrials, a Paul surge makes perverse sense.
Not that his winning in Iowa would necessarily mean much. But it would throw the masters of the universe into a whole new panic, and that would almost make the agonizing prospect of a whole year of this foolishness bearable.