Ron Paul finished second in the Iowa Straw Poll, with a vote count that both exceeded his previous effort and that came perilously close to Michele Bachmann. The political media does not seem to know what to do with this phenomenon, other than to dismiss it or explain it away. And so, your post-Ames "Ron Paul coverage" has largely been "covering whether there should be some Ron Paul coverage at all."
In favor of covering Ron Paul, you'll find Politico's Roger Simon, who says Paul has "been shafted," and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who last night lengthily documented what amounts to a longstanding blackout of Ron Paul coverage, ranging from passive avoidance to smarmy dismissal.
On the other side, you have Kevin Drum and Steve Kornacki. Their argument against giving Ron Paul any further attention is simple. He's a niche candidate, will perform like a niche candidate, and the fact that the Ames Straw Poll is a forum that allows for his niche candidacy to attain something approaching significance is a bug in that particular system of adjudication. Here's Drum:
Paul has a small but fervent fan base that hasn't grown noticeably since he ran and flamed out in 2008, and he has a well-known (but meaningless) ability to fire up this little fan base for assorted minor events like this. That's his organizational ability and everyone is keenly aware of it. At the presidential level, he deserves about as much respect as Harold Stassen.
Now let's talk about Paul, who also put a major effort into the straw poll. But unlike Bachmann and Pawlenty, he didn't really have much to prove. Why? Because the political world already knows that Paul has an army of unusually loyal and dedicated supporters who are willing to show up in large numbers at events like the straw poll and producing impressive-seeming vote totals for their candidate. They've been doing this for years now. Remember when Paul won the straw poll at the 2010 CPAC conference? Or in 2011? His supporters are very good at this kind of thing, channeling their unique passion into "money bombs," Internet poll victories, and strong performances at straw polls and other events where a devoted minority can have an outsize influence.
I have no objections with this analysis of Paul's strength as a candidate, or the likely outcome of this particular presidential run. The fact is that Paul has a huge following, and in an enclosed space -- the Ames fairground, the debating hall -- that following can take up an outsized presence. One flaw in Stewart's argument last night was that he presented the whoops and cheers for Paul during last Thursday's debate as evidence of a larger influence. He should have known that this was just evidence that Paul's throngs know how to pack a room and make themselves heard.
But while we can all agree to be realistic about Paul's following and his chances, none of this adequately justifies not covering Ron Paul. You have to get your head out of the horserace and consider the substance. And to my mind, the best reason to cover Ron Paul is that the issues he has continually raised on the stump, and throughout his career, have a growing salience with the GOP base.
Some of that may have been obscured by the contretemps Paul and Rick Santorum had during the debate, when they got bogged down on the issue of whether or not Iran should be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. On that specific matter, Paul is on an island. On the economy, however, he's on increasingly friendly terrain. While discontent over government bailouts has not been consistently applied electorally, it remains an animating issue for Tea Party members and the GOP base, who see it as government intervention in the economy and fiscal sleight-of-hand from the Federal Reserve.
Paul has inveighed against all of this for years. As you may recall, he introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2009, for which he had substantial bipartisan support. (Paul ultimately did not vote for the measure, because of his objections with the House's final version, The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009 - Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009.)
Paul has also long advocated a quasi-isolationist strain of foreign policy as well, which manifests itself in numerous ways -- opposition to the war in Afghanistan, criticism of the lies that led to the war in Iraq, and a hands-off/mind-your-own-business approach to various international entanglements, such as the aforementioned Iranian nuclear issue. Here, Paul's positions mesh less with those of other Republicans, and his influence is more muted. If you're running for president as a Republican, it still benefits you to rattle your saber. But Paul's impact on the race is still felt keenly under the surface -- witness how strident the beat-back is from Republicans concerned about the "creeping isolationism" that they feel is becoming a key issue in the 2012 campaign. The only place that's coming from is Paul.
How do Paul's supporters on the ground talk about this? The Huffington Post spoke to Iowa State Representative Kim Pearson, a Paul supporter. "Don't underestimate Ron Paul," she said. "I mean, the ranks are growing. Especially when the economy is doing exactly what he foretold it would do. People are getting more and more disenchanted with Obama's foreign policy which looks exactly like George Bush's policy, which looks exactly like, you know -- you just go down the line."
The fact of the matter is that a base that wasn't too keen on listening to Ron Paul in 2008 has shifted substantially in his direction since then. This presents Paul with an opportunity -- and a challenge -- that he didn't have in 2008. In respect to that, I think Kornacki nails it:
The key question about Paul's campaign is one that the straw poll was never going to help answer: Can he build on his sizable (but ultimately limited) base of core supporters and develop mass appeal within the Republican Party?
Of course, what's the major impediment to Paul growing his ranks? It seems pretty clear that it's the existence of establishment politicians who now talk like Ron Paul because Ron Paul's issues have new salience! The base of core support for the things Paul believes to be true has grown -- those supporters are simply not joining Paul's camp. Instead, Paul has to compete with opponents with establishment ties and bigger war chests, who have co-opted him.
And that's another great reason to cover Ron Paul -- at the very least, it allows for vital comparisons. As Stewart said last night, Paul is "Tea Party Patient Zero," and his competitors "are just moral majorities in a tri-cornered hat." If you want to test the mettle of the front-runners, test them against the "real deal." I think you'll quickly identify Paul as the guy with long-standing conviction, and his opponents as glib dispensers of talking points.
As Pearson points out, Paul is the acid-test for consistency: "One of the things Ron Paul said, you know, at the debate Thursday night [was] 'Nobody asked me, nobody said to me you used to vote this way and now you vote that way. Which one is your stance?' That happened over and over, even with Pawlenty. And didn't Bachmann, didn't she vote for George Bush's stimulus plan? And Ron Paul was like, 'Nobody had to say that to me.'"
When you boil the matter down to its essence, the best reason to cover Ron Paul is, if you're not, then you aren't covering the presidential race! You're missing matters of great importance to sizable portions of the GOP base. You're losing that opportunity to test who's being phony or not. if nothing else, Ron Paul is your way out of the old rut -- here's what one side says, here's the other. Here's a third point of view! Maybe there are others! Maybe everything is not a bipolar battle of monoliths!
Let me put it like this. Ron Paul wanted Congress to have the power to audit the Federal Reserve. Rick Perry has intimated that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke would meet a violent end if he came to Texas. One man is clearly the pale imitation of the other, and it's the pale imitation who's getting all the coverage. That sound like good journalism to you?