That the biggest story of the New Hampshire Primary has, in the 36 hours since, received relatively little comment attests to our perception of politics as a game of colliding strategies rather than a psychodrama. If nothing else, this coming electoral year we’re about to get a lesson in the strange Oedipal dynamics between fathers and sons. Ron Paul is running for president. He’s not just running for president up until next week’s South Carolina Primary or the Florida Primary at the end of the month; he’s not running through March or June or even up until the combustible convention days of September when the Republican Party meets in Tampa. Ron Paul is running for president forever, which includes—unless he dies first—next November 6. “We’re dangerous,” he giggled Tuesday night from the stage of his second-place victory rally in Manchester. In radicalese, this translates as (in the parlance of the horrible music my 14-year-old son listens to on the way to school): “I’m sexy and I know it.”
On Tuesday night, Paul defined his terms. His is an “intellectual revolution” strikingly uninterested in advancing the interests of a Republican Party that doesn’t serve his own (as though any of the other campaigns are anything else, but Paul is the one who makes no pretense about it). His revolution isn’t even about displacing Barack Obama per se. Like the truest of believers, who has become belief incarnate in his own mind, Paul has more contempt for those in the congregation who are too treacherous and impure for it, rather than those outside the church like Obama who are immutably and definitionally damned. Paul thinks he’s Martin Luther to a Republican Vatican, and if the white-hot zealotry weren’t a clue about the Protestantism to come, his sheer personal weirdness ought to be.
Wisdom so conventional that it bypasses the prosaic for the banal holds that Paul won’t run as a third-party candidate this fall because it might complicate his son Rand’s career in the Senate. This conclusion calls for a suspension of imagination and collapse of insight that perhaps only political writers are capable of reaching. Ron has been running for president since another Ron’s last year in the White House, and now, at 76, he probably doesn’t need his medical degree to suppose this is his last shot—one of two more earthbound thoughts he’s still equipped to entertain in his fevered thrall. The other, reinforced by the solid finish in New Hampshire preceded by the strong third-place result in Iowa, is that his odds are never going to get shorter.
Throughout this campaign and particularly at the podium, the perfectly glum Rand who’s been at his father’s jubilant side evokes less an inevitable baton-passing than a solemn acceptance of life’s hierarchical order. The last person to look this bummed was Prince Charles. It’s not clear that he thinks he owes the Republican Party much more than his father does; the party has only been a fitfully convenient delivery system for the Pauls’ guerrilla visions since it rejected the doctor’s Senate bid in the '80s to choose in his stead a very recently former Democrat named Phil Gramm—at which point Ron bolted to run for president as a Libertarian in '88. From the father’s perspective, whether it’s rationalization or he actually believes it, the son’s power as a Republican player might, if anything, be strengthened by a consequential third-party gesture this November. Yes, Rand would feel the party’s awful chagrin if Ron were to cost the Republicans the White House, but the party would have also learned the hard way not to fuck with the Pauls, especially a son who might inherit the father’s movement and may be shrewd enough to regard it as more valuable than anything the party could give him anyway.
The one person who seems to understand all this, if only in an oblique fashion, is the nomination race’s current front-runner. Mitt Romney knows that, for the moment, Ron’s presence in the race undercuts the other anti-Romney conservatives and thereby advances his nomination; more evidence that Mitt Romney fully expects to be the nominee and is taking a long view beyond nomination lies in the deference he pays Paul. “Let’s ask our constitutionalist,” Romney said in Sunday morning’s Meet the Press debate, turning to Paul without the slightest trace of irony (while also neatly dodging a question about the states’ right to ban contraception). Paul beamed, and within minutes the occasion blared from Paul’s website.
We keep talking about Ron Paul as a marginal figure. The fact is he’ll have more bearing on this election than Gingrich, Santorum, Perry, and Huntsman combined. The problem for Romney, as surely he knows, is that his unspoken rapprochement with Paul is OK as far as it goes, but it can’t take the form of offering Paul the vice presidency, say, because, well, Paul is insane, and what Sarah Palin did to John McCain’s campaign would barely be a blemish by comparison. It should be acknowledged that the left, of course, has as much vested interest in fanning Paul’s flame of ambition for the long term as Romney does for the short term. The generally sensible assumption is that a third-party run will take votes away from the Republican nominee; but just by virtue of Paul’s politics, it may be more complicated. It’s become folklore that in the 1992 presidential contest, independent Ross Perot took votes away from George H.W. Bush, resulting in the election of Bill Clinton. Actually the polling of the time revealed that as Perot took conservative votes from Bush, he took from Clinton more or less an equal percentage of “change” votes. On economics, entitlements, and civil rights, Paul is to the right of everyone running, but on foreign affairs and domestic matters like drug policy, he’s to the left of everyone, including Barack Obama.
In a campaign that seems dominated by concerns with jobs and spending and a monetary inertia both national and personal, a Paul run is bound to be Obama’s good news only if the Afghan War or some conflagration in Iran doesn’t assert itself the way the financial Chernobyl of Lehman Brothers, and the wider meltdown it triggered, displaced Iraq on 2008’s agenda of miserables. That election came down to whether Obama or McCain was lighter on his feet in pivoting to new and unforeseen realities—which may be the other bit of good news for Obama. By their nature, fanatics aren’t light on their feet. They’re too locked onto the target at which they’ve been pointing themselves all their lives.