The Republican presidential primary has become a bit feisty, but it will get downright ugly if Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucuses.
The principled, antiwar, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media. (Disclosure: Paul wrote the foreword to my 2009 book.)
But in a crowded GOP field currently led by a collapsing Newt Gingrich and an uninspiring Mitt Romney, Paul could carry the Iowa caucuses, where supporter enthusiasm has so much value.
If Paul wins, how will the media and the GOP react? Much of the media will ignore him (expect headlines like "Romney Beats out Gingrich for Second Place in Iowa"). Some in the Republican establishment and the conservative media will panic. Others will calmly move to crush him, with the full cooperation of the liberal mainstream media.
For a historical analogy, study the aftermath of Pat Buchanan's 1996 victory in the New Hampshire primary. "It was awful," Buchanan told me this week when I asked him about his few days as the nominal GOP front-runner. "They come down on you with both feet."
The GOP establishment that week rallied to squash Buchanan. Just after New Hampshire, Gingrich's hand-picked group of GOP leaders, known as the Speaker's Advisory Group, met with one thing on their minds, according to a contemporaneous Newsweek report: "How to deal with Buchanan."
While many Republicans dismissed Buchanan's New Hampshire win as irrelevant, arguing his support was too narrow to ever win the nomination, the neoconservative wing of the GOP darkly warned of a Buchanan menace. "People are panicked," Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard told Newsweek. "If they're not, it's only because they don't know what's going on."
The liberal mainstream media dutifully filled out Kristol's picture of "what's going on." Newsweek put an ominously lit picture of Buchanan on the cover under the words "Preaching Fear." The article stretched itself into contortions to paint Buchanan as a white racist. (Buchanan was campaigning in South Carolina, which still flew the Confederate flag over its capitol.)
Ted Koppel, on "Nightline" in the days after New Hampshire, relied on unsubstantiated tales (for which he later apologized) about Buchanan's father as a way of tying the son to "bigoted and isolationist radio orator Father Coughlin." He also cited a Jewish neighbor of the Buchanans who was beaten up and called "Christ-killer" -- without mentioning that Pat was off at college at the time.
Insinuations of racism and anti-Semitism were the weapons of the mainstream media, but Buchanan's sins in the eyes of the GOP establishment were different. They feared Pat because he rejected a rare inviolable article of faith among the party elites: free trade. Also, in the post-Cold War era, Buchanan's foreign policy had become far less interventionist than that of the establishment.
It's similar with Paul. There are many reasons he is unacceptable to the Republican elite. Some of these transgressions reflect badly on Paul. Others reflect badly on the party.
In Paul's favor, he holds to the professed principles of his party. He makes Republicans look bad by firmly opposing overspending and the unconstitutional expansion of federal power. He correctly predicted the troubles that would be caused by housing subsidies and the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Paul is also disliked for his foreign policy. His non-interventionism has provoked clashes with the party elites, but it resonates with a growing number of Republicans who have grown tired of endless war and nation building that doesn't seem to serve American interests. But Paul regularly goes too far for even these voters, criticizing the killing of al Qaeda leaders and at times sounding like he agrees with Iran's grievances against the United States.
But neither his establishment-irritating adherence to principle, nor his hawk-angering foreign policy, will be the focus of the anti-Paul attacks should he carry Iowa. His conservative critics and the mainstream media will imply that he is a racist, a kook, and a conspiracy theorist.
Paul's indiscretions -- such as abiding 9/11 conspiracy theorists and allowing racist material in a newsletter published under his name -- will be blown up to paint a scary caricature. His belief in state's rights and property rights will be distorted into support for Jim Crow and racism.
Many of Paul opponents will take heart in concluding that Paul cannot get more than 25 percent in any state, and so he can be dismissed as a spoiler. But for the enforcers of Republican orthodoxy, a Paul victory in Iowa will be an act of impudence that must be punished.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.