Ron Paul serves a very important function in the Republican race - for instance, he dares speak the truth about Newt Gingrich's mendacity and demagoguery - and he may well finish strong in the Iowa caucuses. But over the long haul, Paul will be undone by his own batty beliefs.

At last night's Republican debate, blessedly the final two-hour slog of this calendar year, the gadfly libertarian performed a useful public service when he needled Newt on several key issues - notably, Newt's lucrative non-lobbying lobbying for Freddie Mac, and Newt's crazily dangerous bashing of federal judges. Mitt Romney should have had the guts to take Newt on, and to risk being booed by the usual right-wing peanut gallery, but instead he was content to let Paul carry his water.

What's refreshing about Paul (up to a point, anyway) is that he never trims his sails to accommodate the prevailing winds. The conservative base loves to bash the federal bench, and when Newt suggested last night that "grotesquely dictatorial" judges should be congressionally subpoenaed to explain their rulings, the debate audience predictably chomped the red meat. When Newt proposed that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals should simply be eradicated, in retaliation for rulings that frequently displease conservatives, the audience swallowed the red meat. But Paul was the sole candidate on stage with the courage to state the obvious - that Newt's ideas violate the constitutional principle of judicial independence.

Paul said: "If a judge misbehaves and is unethical and gets into trouble, the proper procedure is impeachment. But to subpoena judges before the Congress, I’d really question that. And if you get too careless about abolishing courts, that could open up a can of worms...I really, really question this idea that the Congress could subpoena judges and bring them before us. That’s a real affront to the separation of the powers."

Paul also kept the heat on Newt's Freddie Mac fees, by reminding everyone that Freddie, as a "government-sponsored enterprise" essentially took money from the average American and funneled it to Newt, in exchange for Newt's alleged wisdom and Washington connections. In Paul's words, "To go to work for (Freddie) and get money from them, it's literally coming from the taxpayer. (Freddie) went broke. We had to bail them out. So indirectly, that was tax money that he ended up getting."

Whereupon Newt felt compelled to re-state his fatuous defense - "I did no lobbying of any kind for any organization" - which all depends, of course, on what one's definition of "lobbying" is.

Paul reportedly trails Newt in Iowa by a mere percentage point, which is a statement about the ongoing fluidity of the race and the weakness of the Republican field. Paul might even be stronger than the polls suggest, because success in the caucuses hinges on a good ground game, and Paul is said to be better organized than Newt. People have to be persuaded to spend several hours at the caucus meetings, and Paul has many passionate devotees. He definitely has a niche within the party.

But his niche is also his ceiling.

It was clear last night, when the debate shifted to foreign policy - and the future threat of nuclear weapons in Iran. When the candidates talked about the U.S. drone that crashed recently in Iran, Paul asked, "Why were we flying the drone over Iran?"

Well. You don't have to be a neoconservative Republican hawk to understand why we were flying that drone over Iran. I would venture to guess that, far beyond the GOP base, millions of swing-voting independents would deem it advisable that we fly drones over Iran, if only to find out what the heck is going on. There has always been an isolationist wing within the GOP (Paul complained last night that we have "900 bases" in "130 countries"), but the wing is relatively small. There's no way that Paul can win the nomination of a party that believes in a muscular American presence overseas.

Paul's isolationism - and, indeed, his naivete on Iran - is also interpreted as "antiwar" by liberal hipsters who seem to think that he's cool. Yes, it's cool that he's hosing down Newt these days. But one need only look at the Paul domestic package to realize that he is downright batty. On the issue of smaller government, he's actually way more batty than the average Republican. It speaks volumes that a guy who wants to kill five federal agencies draws a "strongly favorable" rating from only eight percent of conservative Republicans in a September national poll.

So imagine what he'd draw from swing voters. Paul and his fellow libertarians basically want to shrink the federal government to nothing - which means, to cite one random example, that if Paul had his way, the next round of tornado and hurricane victims should expect absolutely nothing from Washington. And here's another fine example, courtesy of columnist Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast: "If someone gets beaten to a pulp on the street simply for being (gay), don't go knocking on Paul's door, as he'll be nowhere to be found, hate-crimes laws being a threat to the freedom of the hater and all."

It would be great if Paul sticks around in the Republican race; he's defies Republican orthodoxy and does us all a favor by exposing Newt; indeed, a stealth Paul victory in Iowa would further scramble the picture and ratchet up the fun. But it's hard to see how the gadfly can transcend his own ceiling.


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Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. He couldn't have cared less whether he pleased his readers or ticked them off; either way, they always came back for more.


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