First, a few caveats. I think Paul’s prone to nutty conspiracy theories, but I don’t think he’s a racist, at least not today. Perhaps there was a time when he held views that I and many people reading this site would find repugnant. But I certainly don’t think that’s the case now. Paul’s temperament and demeanor in public does not suggest he’s the kind of person capable of writing the bile Kirchick quotes in his article. Paul’s position on the drug war alone—which he has acknowledged disproportionately affects minorities—would do more for blacks in America than any proposal any of the other candidates currently has on the table. Paul has also recently rescinded his support for the federal death penalty, also due to its disproportionate impact on blacks. Those two positions alone certainly don’t indicate a candidate who fears "animal" blacks from the urban jungle are coming to kill all the white people.
I also think the Paul phenomenon ought to be separated from any personal baggage Paul may have. Yes, there are some losers who support Paul’s candidacy. Any time you’re a fringe candidate cobbling together support from those who feel disaffected and left behind by the two-party system, you’re going to end up bumping elbows with a few weirdos. But there’s nothing bigoted about the thousands of college kids, mainstream libertarians, war opponents, drug war opponents, and hundreds-long threads on sites like Digg and Reddit where enthusiasm for Paul’s candidacy is strong. This movement is about ideas. There’s a vocal, enthusiastic minority of people out there, skewing young, that is excited about "the Constitution," limited government, and personal freedom. That’s significant and heartening, and shouldn’t be tainted by the fallout from Kirchick’s article (though I fear it will—more on that in a bit).
I’d also point out that if we’re going to clean house, here, we should go ahead and give it a thorough cleaning. When it comes to alleged sordid associations with neo-confederate organizations, Paul’s in good company in the Republican Party (see Haley Barbour and John Ashcroft, among others). When it comes to anti-Semitism, one needn’t look any farther than Al Sharpton, who still commands inexplicable respect from the Democratic establishment. None of this excuses what’s in those newsletters, nor does it excuse Paul’s association with them. It just means he has company, and I suspect the outrage we’ll see in the coming days will be rather selective.
All of that said, let me get to the scolding. Like Nick Gillespie, I think the most disappointing thing about all of this is what Dave Weigel posted this afternoon from New Hampshire: Paul doesn’t consider this worthy of a serious reaction. I was hoping for much, much more. If Paul didn’t write these screeds, he should tell us who did, or assign someone from the campaign to do some research, and reveal the authors’ identity. He should explain his relationship with the authors, and how it is they came to write for a newsletter that went out under his name. He should acknowledge which of these positions he at one time supported but now repudiates, which he has never supported, and which he still supports. If he’s going to claim he merely lent his name to some people and causes he shouldn’t have, and with whom he didn’t at the time or doesn’t now agree, he should say so, and explain how he could let a newsletter continue to be published under his name after first, fifth, tenth, or twentieth time it ran something he found offensive. Like Kirchick, I find the prospect that Paul never read the newsletter implausible.
The 1990s is not "ancient history." We were by then well past the point in American history where the kind of racism and bigotry present in those articles had any place in civil discourse. I simply can’t imagine seeing any piece of paper go out under my name that included sympathetic words for David Duke. That a newsletter with Paul’s name did just that demands an explanation from Paul. The "I’ve answered that in the past" reply isn’t sufficient. You’re running for president, now. You have a national platform. You’ve been an ambassador for libertarian ideas on Colbert, the Daily Show, Meet the Press, and Jay Leno. That you’ve provided a brief explanation for some of these passages a decade ago during a little-noticed congressional campaign doesn’t cut it. No one was paying attention then. Just about everyone is now.
That Paul and his campaign don’t consider this worthy of a serious reaction I’m afraid makes it all the more difficult to buy into the least damning spin on the story (and even that is still pretty damning). It suggests at the very least a certain obliviousness to the resonance and impact of racism and bigotry.
Of course, Paul was never going to win. So the real concern here is what happens to the momentum for the ideas his campaign has revived. The danger is that the ignorance in those newsletters becomes inextricably tethered to the ideas that have drawn people to Paul’s campaign, and soils those ideas for years to come. You needn’t be a gold bug or buy into conspiracies about Jewish bankers, for example, to see the merit in allowing for private, competing currencies (what PayPal once aspired to become). You needn’t believe blacks are animals or savages or genetically inferior to believe that the welfare state’s perverse incentives have done immeasurable damage to black families. You needn’t be a confederate sympathizer to appreciate the wisdom of federalism. You needn’t be an anti-Semite to wonder about the implications of the U.S.’s broad support for Israel.
Some of these ideas have always faced a certain hurdle in the national debate. To argue against welfare, hate crimes laws, and affirmative action, libertarians (and conservatives) always have to clear the racism card first. To argue for ending the drug war or knocking out huge federal agencies, we always have to clear the "’I’m not a kook" card. Today’s news, combined with Paul’s high profile, I think carries the potential to make all of that a little more difficult.
I also fear that newly-minted Paulites on sites like Reddit, Digg, Slashdot and the like—whose first exposure to libertarianism was Ron Paul—are going to click over to the New Republic piece in the coming days, become disillusioned, and assume that this is really what libertarianism is all about.
Paul’s candidacy attracted broad support because he unabashedly embraced what the GOP claims to be on fiscal issues—low tax, limited government, pro-federalist—and what the Democrats claim to be on social issues—pro individual freedom and pro-privacy. Paul’s campaign has essentially called both parties on their bullshit, and made them explain the gap between their stated principles and the way they’ve governed. Both sides I think were surprised at how strong he came on. So both sides dismissed him as a nut, and cited the kookiest fringes of libertarianism and dug up the most whacked-out Paul supporters to prove their point. Unfortunately, the quotes pulled from these newsletters will for many only confirm those worst stereotypes of what he represents. The good ideas Paul represents then get sullied by association. The Ann Althouses of the world, for example, are now only more certain that opponents of federal anti-discrimination laws should have to prove that they aren’t racist before being taken seriously.
There have always been issues where I disagree pretty profoundly with Paul—immigration and the Fourteenth Amendment, to name two. Still, I’ve been encouraged by his campaign because it’s been heartening to not only watch a candidate talk about limited government, humble foreign policy, and individual liberty over the last several months, but to see his support actually grow as he does.
Paul’s success and media coverage have exposed a large portion of the country to libertarian ideas for the first time. Before yesterday, that was a good thing. But now I’m not so sure. If this new audience’s first exposure to libertarianism now comes with all of this decidedly unlibertarian baggage—that many may now wrongly associate with libertarian ideas—maybe it would have been better if Paul’s campaign had sputtered out months ago, and we waited a cycle or two for someone else to come along to tap the sentiment.