Will Ron Paul's Past Cost Him In Iowa?

Republican presidential hopefuls are in the final days of campaigning ahead of the Iowa caucuses. Host Michel Martin explores the latest developments in the contest with Kevin Williamson, deputy managing editor of The National Review, and Michael Fauntroy, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, we will continue our series on who had a good year in 2011. We've been examining the people, ideas, and movements that had a good year. Turkey, that nation that literally stands at the cross roads of East and West, saw it's economic and political profile rise on the world stage over the last year, and we will talk about why that is and what that could mean for the region and the world. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at politics in the U.S. After months of campaigning and an ever changing cast of front runners, Republican candidates are just days away from the Iowa caucuses. A new poll shows a close race with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney holding a slight lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

There's campaign drama beyond the numbers. An editorial in today's Des Moines register calls for Ron Paul to explain racially charged and other questionable comments from newsletters that bore his name in the 1980s and 1990s. He's been prickling about answering questions about this. We're wondering about that as well as what's happened to the previous front runners.

Joining us to talk about these and other stories from the week in politics, Michael Fauntroy. He's an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. With us from New York, Kevin Williamson, the deputy managing editor of The National Review. Gentlemen, welcome back. Happy New Year to you both.

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: Happy New Year to you.

KEVIN WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, we're going to talk about the poll numbers in a minute. But we'd like to talk first about this whole issue with Ron Paul's newsletters. You know, the statements refer to Martin Luther King Junior, the Martin Luther King Junior holiday as Hate Whitey Day and criticize Ronald Reagan for signing that holiday into law suggested that Israel was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and called for AIDS patients to be banned from restaurants.

Now, these, you know, newsletters, needless to say - which I have to say again - have Ron Paul's name on them have been around for quite some time. And he's been asked about them before when he ran for president previously. But he since become very prickly about answering questions about this. And I just want to play a short clip from CNN journalist Gloria Borger tried to have an interview with Ron Paul and ask about this, but this is what happened. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

GLORIA BORGER: And these things are pretty incendiary, you know, that were...

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: Because of people like you.

BORGER: No, no, no, no. Come on, some of the stuff was very incendiary and, you know, saying that in 1993 the Israelis were responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, that kind of stuff. So...

PAUL: Good-bye.

BORGER: All right, all right. Thank you, congressman.

MARTIN: So, what you hear there is Ron Paul taking off his mic and walking out of the interview. So, Kevin, I'm going to start with you because - do I have this right that you call yourself a Ron Paul - say it for me. Ron Paulologist?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, a Ron Paulologist, a little bit. You know, I've followed his career for a while. I have to say she got further than I did. The Paul campaign won't even speak to me, much less get started on an interview. So, at least she got a question out.

Yeah, these newsletters are troublesome. It's true that the story has been out for a long time and that I don't think that Ron Paul personally has a racist bone in his body. But he certainly isn't terribly sensitive about these issues. And he's certainly been willing to associate with and accept the support of the sort of people who traffic in this kind of garbage. And so, it's something that he needs to address in a more forthright way than he has thus far if he ever wants to be taken as something more than as a fringe figure.

MARTIN: But why won't he? Why, in your view, will he not do so?

WILLIAMSON: Well, my only guess about that is that whoever did write these letters is someone that he is still associated with in some way. And that he can't throw that party under the bus without throwing himself down there as well. I mean, that's the only plausible explanation I can think of of why he's never said well who actually wrote these. Given some example of how he's just associated himself from those people. He just - he hasn't done it. So, that leads me to believe that he's in some way still associated with them.

MARTIN: Michael, what's your take on this?

FAUNTROY: Well, a couple things. He may not have identified that person in part because that person may be him or certainly somebody so close to him that he doesn't want to cause any additional problems for that person. You know, and overall, you know, it may well be true that Ron Paul doesn't have a racist bone in his body. But he's - and maybe it's in his hair or his fingernails or the clothes he wears or something close to him that allows him to at least not repudiate the kinds of things that probably deserve to be repudiated. And for that reason, his explanations or lack thereof have actually caused him more problems than they probably should.

It's clear to me - it is fair to note that these are very old statements. But if you follow Ron Paul over the years - and I'm not a Ron Paulologist, I'm a political scientist who looks at this sort of from a larger view. If you look at him over the years, what you find is a real sort of firm hold on principle. And that principle - his principle that is, I should say - and his firm grasp on that principle leads him to do things that leave reasonable people to believe that he is a racist or at least can tolerate that around him.

MARTIN: Well, he is, as we said, in a neck-and-neck fight with Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has a slight lead in the latest poll, you know, in Iowa. So, the question becomes, you know, what now? Obviously there's a media question. Do people continue to ask him about it? But then, I don't know, Kevin, do you feel that if Ron Paul does well in Iowa, what does that say?

WILLIAMSON: Well, it says that Ron Paul did well in Iowa, which is something that's of limited importance. You can ask President Mike Huckabee about that and he'll tell you that winning Iowa isn't necessarily the road to the White House.

You know, Ron Paul's support has a couple of different elements. There's always this long standing undercurrent of libertarianism on the right and in the Republican Party that's part of this. Part of it is that he attracted a lot of people to him for his anti-war stance, which brought him a lot of support during Iraq and Afghanistan and what's come after.

But also what's going on in Iowa and what I think is the more significant thing right now is there's the, you know, there's the anybody but Romney vote out there. And they flirted with Bachmann, they flirted with Rick Perry, they're flirting now with Ron Paul, and to a lesser extent I think Rick Santorum. So, there's going to be a bit of, you know, still shopping around before people get sold in the Republican Party on the fact that Romney is going to be their nominee.

MARTIN: All right, well, let's talk about that. And if you're just tuning in, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're getting an update on the hot political stories of the week just before the Iowa caucuses next week. Our guests are Kevin Williamson of The National Review. That's who was talking just now. Also with us, Michael Fauntroy, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

OK, Professor Fauntroy, Kevin says it's still kind of an anybody-but-Mitt activity right now. And Mitt Romney seems to be trying to act like the front runner. He's at 25 percent, which is not great but still ahead of everybody else and he's trying to seem to - seems to be trying to aim more of his fire at President Obama. I'll just play a short clip with Mitt Romney. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: I believe the country is being led in a very unfortunate and a destructive way by a president that doesn't really understand our economy or understand America. I can get America working again. That's why I'm running.

MARTIN: He's talking to CNN yesterday. So, Michael?

FAUNTROY: Well, I agree that this is a lot about anybody but Romney. Romney's position at the head of the polls suggests that people are just sort of willing to accept the inevitability of Romney. He is the one candidate who has the best collection of attributes and the least amount of controversy about him. And for that reason, I just think he's - there's inevitability that comes along with some candidates who were in the fight four years ago and now they're back at it again sort of helps explain why he is where he is.

And I think it's absolutely correct that, you know, the Iowa caucuses don't really do very much. The reality is fewer than half of the caucuses that have been held over the last 40 years have produced a Republican nominee. So, you know, they're all fighting over Iowa. I get it because it's first. But ultimately, it's going to be the rest of the campaign that's going to determine this, not really what goes on in Iowa.

MARTIN: Kevin, what - do you think that the process, to this point, from the standpoint of the Republican Party, which I know you don't speak for, but from their standpoint, do you think that this has been a productive process in kind of vetting these candidates and at least exposing their weaknesses so that they can be, you know - so that those issues can be addressed kind of down the line?

Because one of the interesting features of it has been how candidates have surged forward and then kind of collapsed. There was, as you point out, the Michele Bachmann surge, Newt Gingrich. Do you think it's been a productive process or do you think it's been a waste of time?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think it has been. I think that one of the things I like about being on the right is that there are real conflicts of ideas. I mean, you've got people with very, very different ideas about the role of government, taxes, economic policy, those sorts of things, foreign policy. And I think those discussions are productive.

I think one of the things that isn't well understood outside of a kind of conservative movement or the Republican operations is that the real dynamic on the right right now is between people who dislike Barack Obama and think his policies are wrong and people who hate Barack Obama and think that he's evil.

MARTIN: Why do they hate him?

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think partly it's cultural, partly it's that he does pursue some pretty bad policies. Partly it's - I mean, it's...

MARTIN: What do you mean by cultural?

WILLIAMSON: It's complicated.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Is cultural code for something else? What does cultural mean? I'm sorry.

WILLIAMSON: Well, I think that he seems like an Ivy League law school professor who just sort of stands for everything that the kind of populist right doesn't like. And the people who really have that strong emotional reaction to Barack Obama are not sold on Mitt Romney because they're not just looking to win the election. They think there's going to be a repudiation of Obama and what he stands for. I think they're kidding themselves about that, but that's what they're really looking for.

And I think that's part of the reason why Gingrich had that nice little boomlet. It's because he was seen as the guy who would come in and sort of, you know, hand Barack Obama his head during the debates and lead this kind of national repudiation of what's gone on in the last four years politically.

I think that's emotional and it's not very much grounded in reality, but I think that's definitely an important part of the dynamic here.

MARTIN: All right, Kevin. I gave Kevin the first word. I'm going to give you the last word, Michael Fauntroy.

FAUNTROY: Well, I want to say quickly, I think with Professor Gingrich or Dr. Paul or the multi, multi, multimillionaire Romney, there are a number of examples of people who don't quite match up with the rest of the populous of the country in terms of their backgrounds culturally, if you will.

So I think that...

MARTIN: And by Dr. Paul, he meant Ron Paul is a medical doctor.

FAUNTROY: Yes.

MARTIN: People forget that.

FAUNTROY: Yes.

MARTIN: Because he's been in Congress for so long, but Michael...

FAUNTROY: Yes. And so I just think that, as we go forward in this campaign, what we're really looking at is a bunch of distinctions without any real differences between the candidates. They, from my perspective, have very similar positions on the most important issues and what will ultimately win this for Governor Romney, which is my prediction, is that his name recognition and his money and the organization that comes from the money will help propel him to the nomination.

MARTIN: Well, happy New Year to you both. Our last conversation of the year with both of you gentlemen. Thank you for the contributions you've made...

FAUNTROY: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...to the program throughout the year and we hope more will come in the year to come. Michael Fauntroy is an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

With us from our bureau in New York, Kevin Williamson, deputy managing editor of The National Review. Gentlemen, thank you.

FAUNTROY: Thank you.

WILLIAMSON: Thank you.

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