Ron Paul's supporters are fond of quoting a line attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
There is no record of Gandhi actually saying this, but the point is clear -- and so far, Paul's public reception has evolved just that way.
In his 2008 campaign and for much of this year, the Texas congressman received little attention from the media and from his Republican opponents, much to the chagrin of his devoted supporters. After a while, the media coverage picked up, but the majority of articles dismissed him as unelectable. This month, Paul has finally gotten what his supporters have been asking for all along -- intense, sustained attention. It has fallen squarely in the then they fight you category.
As rising poll numbers in Iowa have brought Paul into the top-tier spotlight, the media have begun to dredge up controversial bits from his past that went under the radar when people considered Paul irrelevant. Now his supporters are learning a hard lesson: with increased relevance comes increased scrutiny, and everyone, rightly or wrongly, has something in their past that can hurt them -- just ask Herman Cain.
Now that Paul poses a serious threat in Iowa, his fellow candidates are pulling no punches. In fact, every single Republican contender has weighed in on Paul in the past week -- some directly, others obliquely -- and none of them have had anything nice to say:
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Michele Bachmann: He is just fine with Iran having a nuclear weapon, and they have already stated they will just use a nuclear weapon against the United States. Ron Paul would be dangerous for the United States on foreign policy. (Paul has said he would not go to war to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.)
Newt Gingrich: I think Ron Paul's views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American. Now, that's going to be very controversial, but I just suggest to people, read the newsletters.
Jon Huntsman: He's not electable at the end of the day. Let's be real about it. ... You've got to get mainstream support to win the election, and I just don't think he's going to be able to get enough mainstream support to win.
Rick Perry: You don't have to vote for a candidate who will allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, because America will be next. I'm here to say you have a choice.
Mitt Romney: One of the people running for president thinks it's OK for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I don't.
Rick Santorum: Think about having a guy running for president who is going to be on the left of Barack Obama on national security. ... The things that most Iowans like about Ron Paul -- his economic ideas -- are the things he's least likely to be able to accomplish. (He noted that Paul has only managed to pass one bill in Congress, though he has sponsored countless more.)
Similar accusations -- that he is a dangerous isolationist, that he is racist, that he is unelectable -- have poured in from editorial pages of a variety of political stripes.
It is impossible to know what Ron Paul truly thinks about black or gay people or the other groups so viciously disparaged in his newsletters. What we do know with absolute certainty, however, is that Ron Paul is a paranoid conspiracy theorist who regularly imputes the worst possible motives to the very government he wants to lead, James Kirchick wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
He has repeatedly said that we should allow Iran to continue to develop a nuclear weapon, wrote Joseph McQuaid, the publisher of The New Hampshire Union Leader, a conservative newspaper that endorsed Newt Gingrich earlier this month. Never mind Paul being the favored candidate of the lunatic fringe (see white supremacists, anti-Semites, truthers, etc.). Never mind his refusal to disavow a third-party run (which would only help President Obama's re-election). His defenders say they admire Ron Paul's 'consistency.' It is true, Paul has been consistently spouting this nonsense. It is about time New Hampshire voters showed him the door.
The majority of the attacks have focused on Paul's non-interventionist foreign policy views and on the racist and anti-Semitic statements made in his old newsletters, which he has disavowed and maintained he was unaware of. His economic and social policies have been addressed less frequently.
One group, however -- the National Organization for Marriage -- is homing in on Paul's stance on same-sex marriage. As a libertarian, he believes the issue should be left up to the states, and he and Huntsman are the only candidates who have not signed the group's pledge to support a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
NOM just released a TV ad blasting Paul's views on marriage, and in an accompanying press release, NOM President Brian Brown called those views far out of the mainstream and simply unacceptable.
Marriage between one man and one woman has been the foundation of American society and American families, Brown said. It is truly radical for a serious presidential candidate to blithely cast marriage aside, suggesting that any private arrangement between adults can be called marriage.
Paul, for his part, has tolerated the scrutiny, and many of his supporters welcome it, calling him the only candidate with nothing to hide.
The fighting has clearly begun, but whether Paul will make it to the final step in Gandhi's aphorism -- winning -- remains to be seen.