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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

I didn’t wander down to the Capitol and National Mall on Saturday because I’m nursing a bum ankle from a spill I took playing pickup hoops. But I wish had been able to go, and I further wish I had developed even a crude survey instrument to administer to protesters. What I would have asked them is one, simple question, “Whom did you support in last year’s Republican primaries?”

My suspicion is there would be an unusually high number of people replying, “Ron Paul.”

I realize the protesters who came to Washington Saturday are not a representative sample of all those making noises at health care town halls. Surely, East Coasters or those who happen to live in relative proximity to DC were overrepresented. Whatever their hometowns, those too ill to make the trek were probably (and ironically) underrepresented. And, like many such protests, some attendees were there as much to push their own single-issue agendas, such as anti-abortion or pro-gun platforms, as they were to protest specifically the Obama Administration’s health care reform plan. And I’m sure there were still others who, regardless of their interest or feelings about health care reform, simply oppose the president for a variety of legitimate (He’s too liberal!) or nutjobby (He’s a fascist-socialist Muslim infidel born in Kenya!) reasons.

But strip away the angry rhetoric and easily-mocked signs to listen to what people are complaining about–and, perhaps more tellingly, what they are not complaining about–and the protesters sound eerily Paulesque. They are complaining about government intrusion: oppressive use of government (czars!), too much intervention in personal lives and markets (death panels!), long-term debt obligations (where will the money come from?!), and the proper role of the federal government (it’s all so unconstitutional!)–that is, they fret that Obama is going to destroy America and American values from within. What the vast majority do not seem to be complaining about, so far as I can tell, is how the Administration is fighting and managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or its overall security and intelligence posture–that is, they don’t seem too worried that Obama is going to let America be destroyed from the outside.

Granted, a plausible explanation for a general absence of defense or foreign policy critiques is that the national conversation right now is focused squarely on health care coverage, deficits and debt, and domestic policy more generally. It may well be that if I poked a Saturday protester in DC he or she would have had something critical to say about Obama’s foreign and defense policies, too. Still, it’s interesting to consider the possibility that the town halls of Summer 2009 are a rekindled version of Ron Paul rallies in 2007 and 2008. And one of the reasons I suspect this is the nature of the fervor itself–its tenor, its intensity, its certainty, and especially its language.

Anyone like me who writes publicly about politics knows that if you wrote anything even mildly critical of Ron Paul during the presidential race, your inbox was soon flooded with complaints…even if your comments were largely laudatory! In my Baltimore Sun column of August 1, 2007, I argued that, whatever else one thought about them, Paul and Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich were serving an identical purpose in their respective parties’ nomination field: keeping their fellow candidates’ feet to the fire on their Iraq war records. Overall, the piece praised both men (*see excerpt below). But because I happened to dismiss Paul’s chances at the nomination, and referred to both men as “quirky gadflies”–a label I’d happily apply to myself, for the record–I was snowed under by rage-filled comments. I regret not saving the emails that August, but suffice to say that the comments posted in response to the column at this link are a very good approximation of the reactions I received directly.

Notice from these comments not only the certainty that Paul’s candidacy and chances at the nomination were being underestimated, but the equal certainty with which followers believed in him and his ideas. Notice, too, the references to honesty, to the proper understanding of American history and the Constitution, and of course the unrelenting pique directed at the mainstream media’s overlooking of Paul, his ideas, and his supporters.

Best I can tell, The Daily Beast’s Dana Goldstein is the only person who so far has tried to document a connection between the Paulites and the protesters. In a brilliant investigative essay, which I strongly recommend people read in full, Goldstein writes:

One of Paul’s main arguments from the campaign, that much social spending is unconstitutional, has become a rallying cry of the Republican base. At a health-care town-hall meeting in Sun City, Arizona, on August 25, a woman asked McCain, “I would like to know how the president is getting by with all of this money….It’s against the Constitution. Doesn’t he know that we still live under a Constitution?” McCain was booed when he replied, “I’m sure that [Obama] respects the Constitution of the United States.” In part, Paul’s anti-federal ideology has gained traction because conservatives are incensed by President Obama’s ambitious—and expensive—domestic agenda, from health reform to the federal stimulus to bank bailouts. And in part, it’s because libertarian thinking is easier for mainstream Republicans to embrace on healthcare than it is on doing away with the Federal Reserve or ending American imperialism. Right wing poster girl Rep. Michele Bachmann, an originator of the false “death panel” rumor, has promised to schedule a Minnesota town hall meeting with Paul in September…

But there’s a darker side to the story: Some of Paul’s grassroots supporters have protested, armed, at health-care town-hall meetings. They are connected in a loose-knit, nationwide network of activists who believe the current federal government is largely illegitimate and unconstitutional. Some have ties to the “birther” movement, which believes—disregarding all evidence—that President Obama is not a natural-born American citizen.

To be fair, Paul’s Congressional office and his nonprofit, the Campaign for Liberty, have no direct ties to the gun-toting protesters….

As he did on the campaign trail, Paul argues that inflation is the chief cause of rising health-care costs, and that the solution is tort reform and cutting taxes. He also blames the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “You can’t keep expanding a war in the Middle East and pretend you can come up with a $2 trillion medical-care program,” Paul said. “I think the statistics are showing that the American people are turning against the Afghanistan war. And can you imagine how much health care we could have had without the bailout packages?”

“With the collapsing of the economy and this rush for more government medical care, the people are much more alarmed and concerned and outspoken than I ever dreamed of,” Ron Paul said.

This sounds like reasonable opposition. But the fact is many of Paul’s most ardent supporters aren’t listening carefully to their leader. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on August 11, television networks captured William Kostric, a native Arizonan, standing outside a presidential town-hall meeting wearing a 9-mm handgun strapped to his belt. He held a sign referencing the Thomas Jefferson quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” Kostric’s MySpace profile lists Paul as his “hero” and someone he’d “like to meet.” The page also includes lyrics to a pro-Ron Paul rap song….

One of the Phoenix protesters, Chris Broughton, a former Paul campaign volunteer, carried an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. “This government is the most corrupt Mafioso on the face of the earth,” Broughton later told the Arizona Republic. Broughton attends a church led by Pastor Steven Anderson, who delivered a sermon the day before the event praying for Obama’s death and calling him a “socialist devil.”

What more typical conservatives might not realize is that armed protesters like Broughton and Kostric represent an ideology far more complex and radical than simply opposing “socialized” medicine or increased government spending. Their worldview is pro-life, anti-tax, and hawkish on immigration, which they call an “invasion”—but also passionately anti-war and anti-authoritarian.

This is a long excerpt, but to unpack it quickly let’s just say that you see many of the elements we witnessed at both the summer town halls and last Saturday’s protest march. Yes, there are complaints about liberals, Democrats, ACORN and so forth. But the larger complaint is about an unconstitutional usurpation of power, of tyranny through socialism (or fascism, protestors can’t seem to keep the two straight), and a general paranoia about not just Obama and the Democratic Congress but the whole Washington system. It’s an “invasion,” sure, but an invasion from within.

Circumstantial evidence also links protesters to Paulites. Michelle Goldberg notes that FOX News gives Paul allay Andrew Napolitano significant exposure (even if only online). Robert Broadus, who ran for Congress in Maryland’s 4th District, is a Ron Paul tea partier who showed up to complain at a Ben Cardin town hall and was soon thereafter invited on Neil Cavuto’s show.

What does all this mean? Two curiosities come most immediately to mind.

First, what’s interesting here as pertains to media coverage is the very real possibility that the same “mainstream/liberal media” that ignored and dissed Ron Paul and his supporters are now bending over backward to give them coverage beyond their actual numbers. Second, as pertains to the Republican Party and the conservative movement, what’s interesting is the possible elevation of a movement that two years ago was insufficient to nominate its preferred candidate to a position of being able to change the policy debate and cow the very same Republican elites who lined up, almost to a person, behind other Republican presidential contenders.

Hopefully, pollsters or investigative reporters will try to drill down a bit further to learn more about these protesters. And now I must go prepare for the impending email deluge.

(*The Sun links go stale after a few weeks and I could not find a reprint anywhere. The following excerpt is verbatim final four graphs of the column:

It’s easy to dismiss as reckless the statements of these war opponents. But at least their positions have the benefit of consistency: If you oppose the war and think it is going badly, they insist, then vote against it.

Their critique carries a different subtext for Democrats and Republicans, however. Mr. Kucinich’s roughly translates as, “Democrats who vote for the war’s continuation while mouthing dissatisfaction to score political points are hypocrites.” What Mr. Paul is saying is, “Republicans who vote to perpetuate the war while blathering about supporting the troops who would undoubtedly be safer at home just to score political points are hypocrites.”

A recent national poll shows Mr. Kucinich and Mr. Paul at 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively, among their party’s primary voters. Their electoral problems go well beyond electability to near-invisibility. They are treated like novelty items, to be picked up momentarily, puzzled over and put back on a shelf.

But in a country where majorities think the war was a mistake, has not been worth it, has aggravated terrorism risks for the country and needs to end, is it a bad thing to have two quirky gadflies who hold their colleagues to account for the biggest policy fiasco in decades?)

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