Nashua, N.H. The trees are ablaze with yellows and reds and, since an early snowfall the night before, blanketed with white as well. All that color in southern New Hampshire in mid-autumn, however, is more than a visual display. It underlines how mixed up the seasons are — how mixed up our politics are — in the final months before the first presidential primary.
But this is also the season for Ron Paul, the iconoclastic Texas congressman who for a quarter century has been railing about government spending, the Fed, the overextension of American military power, the gold standard and, until recently, has been relegated to the periphery of our politics.
Now, Paul, an obstetrician and midwife to a movement, is suddenly front and center, though not exactly occupying the center of our politics.
Which may be why, well before 7:30 on a recent morning, several hundred of Nashua’s respectables — there were so many gray suits in the ballroom of the Marriott Courtyard that you could have held a Jos. A. Bank trunk show — gathered in the early chill to hear Paul talk about interest rates, the perfidy of the Fed and an economy where the overlords are suggesting that “working hard and saving is wrong.”
He spoke, too, of the NASDAQ bubble, the housing bubble, the bond bubble — and with every speech (and a barrage of ads on Granite State television), he is building a Ron Paul bubble.
“We spent too much, we ran up a debt, we regulated too much and then we said we can’t handle it all so we’ll depend on the Fed,” he said. There wasn’t a set of notes in sight, nor in his suit pocket. He’s given this riff for decades. “We continue to spend, the deficit has exploded, we continued to borrow and we continue to tax — and we wonder why we haven’t had a recovery.”
This is not a message that is alien to this terrain. Long before some of the members of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce came of age politically, New Hampshire politicians, especially Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr., who presided in Concord from 1973 to 1979, spoke in an idiom much like Paul’s.
So if the Paul message of “freedom and prosperity” is to flourish anywhere, this is the place — and this is the time.
“He reminds us that the government has a limited role, not an expansive role,” said Ovide Lamontagne, unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate here in 1996 and a candidate again in 2012. Lamontagne is not committed to any presidential candidate, but he regards the Paul candidacy as “a statement of empowerment, not powerlessness.”
Nobody is predicting that Paul will prevail in January’s primary. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has roots too deep in this region and is in too strong a position, at least right now. But the Nashua crowd wasn’t only full of the converted. It was crowded, too, with the curious.
For years Ron Paul events didn’t attract the curious, who were repelled by the true believers, committed supporters like Robert Carley, who rose at 3 a.m. to drive from Darien, Conn., to Nashua to present Paul a cartoon of the candidate. “He has a great face to caricature — interesting eyes, high eyebrows,” Carley said. “But I admire his conservative policies. He was prophetic about the economy and all the money we wasted in Iraq.”
Paul is a political perennial, which ordinarily is a political liability. But Paul is a perennial with a difference. No longer are he and his views colorful eccentricities. He’s not the only one skeptical of the Fed, nor the only one worried about federal spending. His $2 million ad offensive here — the earliest big TV bang yet — has a simple theme: the changing views of his rivals and the consistency of his own views.
He hasn’t adjusted his message to the current debate. The current debate has been bent to his message.
“I don’t know whether things have come my way or not,” he said in an interview. “A lot of mistakes have been made and people are paying new attention to all this overspending.”
Today, with the economy still in distress and foreign wars causing increasing distress, a Venn diagram of Dr. Paul’s ideas would give a viewer a serious case of vertigo.
His position on the Fed intersects that of Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont socialist. His position on spending intersects that of the tea party. His position on foreign intervention intersects those of some conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. And he sees allies in Occupy Wall Street.
“The street demonstrations are symbols of our problems,” he said in the interview. “It’s now important that all that energy be channeled in the right way. A lot of those people are skeptical of the Fed. But some of them want to penalize anybody’s who’s successful. That’s not the way to go.”
All those intersections explain why he was asked here by a woman who’s an officer in the National Guard whether he’d withdraw American troops from Afghanistan (his answer: “Just come home”) and by a man who described himself as a carpenter, wilderness guide, teacher and novelist whether the Fed was “a cabal of international bankers” (Paul: “We can get rid of it by congressional action”).
Listen to the heart of the Paul message:
“The Constitution is to protect individuals’ rights to make their own choices,” he said. “We have accepted this idea that the government can be so big that it can bankrupt our economy and endanger our liberties. We have to decide what the role of government should be.”
Every one of those sentences could be spoken in 2012 by any number of Republican candidates.
Paul is running for more than president. He is running to make his ideas part of the mainstream debate. He’ll likely lose the first campaign. He’s already won the second.