Posted by Brad @ 5:07 pm on March 27th 2008

Ron Paul: Permissible Again?

One of the things I haven’t talked about much in relation to the Ron Paul campaign is what’s been dubbed by many supporters “the media blackout”. A funny thing happened around December 15th or so. Ron Paul disappeared. He was doing nothing less, and in many ways the big newsworthy events of his campaign happened AFTER that (newsletters, fundraising, some high profile supporters coming out of the woodwork, etc), but relative to even where he was in the public eye in November, he was just plain gone from the Presidential race conversation starting in mid-December, and never really got back.

I don’t take that conspiratorially. In a lot of ways, a similar thing happened with John Edwards on the Democratic side. And certainly, Ron Paul was never really viable to win, so it’s quite understandable even (though they did keep covering a lot of candidates who seemed decidedly unviable by that time, particularly on the Republican side). But I remember being in New Hampshire those weeks, and political coverage was ever-present, and it didn’t take long for all of us really to realize “Hey, what happened to the reporters?”

I wrote about it in my day-after autopsy of the New Hampshire effort (here), where I had this to say:

3. I agree with James in many of his comments to Rojas’s big post on this subject. I think the media blackout has really hurt Ron Paul. I am NOT a big “MSM conspiring to do this or that!” guy, but the truth is, Ron does really well among people that made up their minds months ago (third in Iowa; second that I saw in New Hampshire), and he does pretty darn well among people who make up their minds on the day of the event (not so good here but still significant; good in Iowa. I chalk both up to the “Well, fuck it” vote), but he does very very poorly among people who just start paying attention a week or two before the vote and decide then. These are not people that go in depth enough to ponder the 1990 race newsletter or Ron’s position on the FDA (believe it or not, he does WELL among those people); these are not the people who have just in the last minute decided that they might as well vote. These are people who turn on CNN or Fox News a week before the polls open with the most cobwebby and casual impressions imaginable, ask their friends, and pretty much make up their minds based on that. And, on that front, Ron Paul got a mostly total media blackout in the last few weeks. But more significantly, it had nothing whatever to do with Ron Paul, and that’s what killed him. If you tuned in from December 15th on, you wouldn’t have any idea that Ron Paul was even in the race. I spent a fair bit of time in a bar the day before the election with a lot of reporters (by the way, I got to chat with Tucker Carlson, Sam Donaldson, Alan Colmes, and a few others), and the narrative for this election was already there. “If you want to vote, here is the situation” was the explicit premise of every media report that went out, and believe you me Ron Paul had no part of that narrative. Not because the media had some active conspiracy going, but just because they’re self-interested and lazy. The salient point is, if you’re a voter making up your mind in the last few weeks, who just started tuning in recently as a more or less blank slate—why on earth is Ron Paul even on your radar, much less somebody you’d consider?

By November, if you remember, Ron was doing pretty well in terms of media coverage, at least relatively. And then, zip, and except for a slight blip for fundraising and the newsletters, pretty much faded into non-existence as far as the coverage was concerned.

The exception proves the rule. I remember the last Republican debate, MC’d by Anderson Cooper, which was attended by McCain, Romney, Huckabee, and Paul, and Anderson, though he wasn’t mean per se, pretty much spent the entire 90 minutes treating Paul like a smelly homeless guy begging for change. That, and exerting a Herculean effort to try to drag Mitt Romney into contention. By that point in the campaign, and really many months earlier, the ideas didn’t matter one jot. Not even the personalities. It was all just an excuse to try to get them bickering—over what was entirely incidental—so the coverage could then be “Oh snap! Candidates bicker!!!”

All of that isn’t bitter per se. I never in a million years imagined Ron Paul had a chance to be President, and frankly if I did that would have complicated my decision-making paradigm somewhat. But it did strike me that, in a very real way, campaigns cease to be, at least from a media perspective, a battle of ideas, and instead become just a battle of battles. Maybe it’s naive of me for that to have no sunk in after all these years watching it, but to me, part of the entire point of the political process is to function as a sort of free market of ideas, and like it or not, the Fourth Estate plays a central role in that. The competition is, in a very big way, the point in and of itself, as much if not more so than what actually wins. So it was very sad to see that, once sweeps weeks hit (January through March), that went out the window, and Ron Paul, a candidate who pretty much exists entirely on ideas (and nutty supporters), went with it.

So it’s with some…heck, resentment even, and certainly surprise, that I note in the last week or two, Ron Paul is suddenly back on the radar. This blogger got to it first, but I’ve been chewing on it too.

Time magazine is running this piece in which the magazine suddenly comes to the notion that Ron Paul could play some kind of dissenting role in the GOP, and maybe that’s important, as if that hasn’t been live since last June. That got Andrew Sullivan, who had essentially gone dark on Paul since a few weeks after he endorsed him, to put up this piece in which he (again) comes to the realization that Paul has some serious ideas that need airing. A realization he seemed to have had back in December when he endorsed him, before promptly ending active advocacy of the campaign and more or less eschewing discussion of him and his ideas entirely.

Ron’s gold standard stuff is widely derided, even in favorable articles (the Time one, for instance), but suddenly Fox News business journalists are deciding that maybe they should at least dust it off and give it an actual look instead of just laughing it off.

And now even the foreign press (well, The Guardian anyway) is dusting him off and saying “Hey, here is a candidate with serious views on foreign policy”.

Coming as it does now that the Republican primary has more or less passed into history and there’s almost no more mileage to be had out of Clinton-Obama (not that they won’t get more), I find myself, as I said, suddenly a bit…heck, I’ll say it again, resentful. A lot of these ideas would have been helpful to have been aired in, say, January.

A lot of libertarians, gearing up for the Paul campaign, talked a lot about how he would be destroyed by the media. Most, myself included, just kind of shrugged that off as rub-of-the-mill crazy libertarian-talk. And certainly, there was no concerted, conscious effort to do it. And absolutely, at least the sort of problems that libertarians of the Jack and Doug Mataconis and Doug Mataconis variety were preoccupied with, most of the problems with the Paul campaign were self-inflicted (most of the problems he had with mainstream Americans is just that libertarianism, to them, is nutty, and sorry guys, that includes your variety as well).

And yet, in a more subliminal and pernicious way, the blackout of Ron Paul also led to, more or less, a blackout of his ideas. It wasn’t like he was begging Americans to like him or even vote for him, but to consider the ideas and throw them into the cogs of the campaign season. They did get there, to an extent greater than I had ever imagined they would, but not as far as they could have. And largely, I think, because Ron (and, by extension, us) got swept under the rug (and, of course, it’s not like there was an alternative to Ron if you wanted a proxy by which to get libertarianism—or more accurately conservatism—relevant).

I do agree with Sullivan on one point though. I have a feeling history will be a lot kinder to Ron Paul than the media were from December through this last week. In some ways, with this sudden lifting of the blackout and the safety of removed afterthought, we’re seeing that process begin already I think. And I think Ron’s effect is out there already, bending politics ever so imperceptibly, but it’s hard to see (or know) without distance. So in some senses I’m satisfied.

But I do have to admit, with the recent coverage, that the feeling is a bit bittersweet.

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