The Mystery of Ron Paul

As many of you probably saw, Andrew Sullivan endorsed Ron Paul yesterday. I have no idea what to think about this, really, except that if you’d sent his post to me two years ago through a time machine, when Ron Paul was still the name of an eccentric congressman known primarily to a few small-government types, I would’ve laughed, or possibly just scratched my head and asked if maybe your time machine was kind of, um, broken. Perhaps this is a function of my relative newness to Washington (I moved here in late summer 2005), but from a political perspective, 2007 is just awesomely, awesomely strange.

I looked into Paul’s candidacy right as it was starting to take off, but, many months and millions of dollars later, there’s a lot related to Paul and his campaign that’s still somewhat foggy. I had a conversation with a journalist friend yesterday about the Ron Paul phenomenon — the blimp, the money, the barrages of email and comments — and the question that neither of us could figure out is: What single issue, or combination of issues and circumstances, is really driving his campaign? And better yet, is it repeatable?

It’s a common question, I think, but one to which no one seems to have an answer. TNR’s Michael Crowley seems to wonder the same thing in over The Stump today. Ron Paul, asked how he’ll use his influx of cash, says, somewhat vaguely, ““This money will be used for the reasons it was sent.” To which Crowley replies:

Of course, it’s hardly 100 percent clear what those reasons are. Iraq? Libertarianism? The gold standard? Some inchoate anti-establishment anger? But sounds like it ain’t gonna go, say, down Rudy’s throat.

Yes, the anti-war crowd makes up a significant portion of Paul’s support base. But then why not Kucinich? What about, say, gold bugs? What about libertarians of either the Cato or Rockwell veins? If so, why haven’t other libertarians (of any stripe) ever really had this sort of popular success? Is it his purism, or his anti-authoritarianism? Is it simply a combination of an odd political situation, a less than popular war, and a GOP field that hasn’t found a single candidate to rally around? What’s the breakdown of issues that matter to his supporters, and after the campaign is over, are there lessons to be drawn for other candidates or issue-oriented groups? Why and how, in other words, did this unassuming country doctor — a man who, between his personality and his positions, is almost the antithesis of the modern American politician — become a political cult hero?

It’s not clear to me that many of Paul’s supporters, at least those outside his core fans, are entirely aware of his positions on many issues. Anecdotally, I was listening to NPR this morning (I’m unable to find the broadcast for a link, so you’ll have to trust me), and a reporter in Iowa interviewed a couple of folks at a diner. Two of them were very fond of Ron Paul, though skeptical about his chances of winning. Their back up candidates were… Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

Needless to say, this strikes me as at least a little bit confused. I suspect it is a confusion that is at least somewhat representative of Paul’s support (again, outside of his die-hard supporters, who I’m sure are well-versed in the Paul issue set). But other than a few brief anecdotes like this one, I have nothing to actually indicate that it’s a trend. Who knows? I’m not even sure the campaign could really say how his support breaks down.

As always, Ron Paul remains a fascinating — and, at this point, extremely well funded — mystery.