I keep saying that I like Ron Paul and I’m glad he’s in the presidential race. He’s so refreshing compared to his opponents, and I particularly appreciate his non-interventionist approach to foreign policy. But he will never be president, if only because of the flake factor. I’ve put off saying anything about this latest thing about the racist newsletters, because I was trying to figure out my own position on the matter. Here’s what I think.

I don’t agree that this is old news that Paul has already dealt with. Yes, it came up during the last presidential race, but Paul never did give a plausible explanation for those wretched things. My sense is that he didn’t write them himself, but that he’s protecting whoever did. I find it hard to believe that Paul himself believes the things that are in those newsletters, but that’s not very exculpatory, given that they did come out under his own name. At best, Ron Paul was indifferent to their content. At best. My guess is that Paul is the kind of person who is so enamored of ideas, and the purity of his ideas, that he doesn’t pay as much attention as he should to matters he considers to be on the periphery — like, for example, the fact that some nasty people attached themselves to him, and used his name and reputation to spread wicked ideas. (Again, that’s the best possible interpretation I can come up with on the facts as we know them now).

Paul supporters want to believe that this stuff doesn’t matter, for various reasons, but I think they’re wrong, if only for this one reason: it reminds people that Paul is something of a flake. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, if he did not and does not believe the things written in those letters, the fact that he didn’t grasp how offensive they were at the time tells you something about where his head is, and is not. I wonder about the kind of judgment he would exhibit as a president. This fiasco about the newsletters reminds me how easy it is to like Ron Paul and want to see his candidacy go far: if you don’t believe he has a chance to be president, you don’t have to think hard about the kind of president he would be, in terms of temperament and judgment. Because to me, that’s the most damning thing about the racist newsletters (unless, of course, it were to come out that Paul wrote them, or in some way consciously endorsed their racist content): that Paul was at best indifferent to the garbage that was in them.

Despite this, I still am pleased with Paul’s candidacy, even though I’m not going to call myself a supporter (and note well, I will not ever call myself a supporter of any candidate, at least not on this blog, as a matter of TAC editorial policy). A few days back, Nick Gillespie at Reason blogged about why the Paul newsletter controversy may not invalidate his candidacy. He writes:

[Reason's Brian] Doherty is right that the appeal of Paul in the here and now has absolutely nothing to do with the newsletters and everything to do with the fact that he alone among Republicans (and Democrats) is providing an actual alternative to the status quo. As Doherty says, in an age of historic and chronic budget deficits, Paul is the only candidate talking about actually cutting spending; in a country tired of war and unabated increases in military spending, only Paul is talking about reducing the size and scope of armed forces and redirecting foreign policy; and in a country that never embraced bank bailouts and monetary policy that abetted the asset bubble that fueled the financial crisis, Paul was the first person to talk about auditing the Federal Reserve.

He’s right. I am not a libertarian, but libertarian Ron Paul is the only Republican questioning the status quo. Conor Friedersdorf, in a long, thoughtful observation about Paul and this controversy, makes a lot of sense here:

How is it — some of you might ask — that I’d even consider a vote for a candidate who, at best, negligently lent his name to a racist publication, profited from the deal, and either never bothered to find out who wrote the offending material or lied about being ignorant of it? (To be clear, if I thought he actually wrote the newsletters I certainly would not vote for him.) I’d answer that none of the policies he advocates makes me morally uncomfortable — unlike his competition. And that he has a long history of doing what he says when elected, and no more.

“How could you vote for someone who…”

Isn’t that a thorny formulation? I’m sometimes drawn to it. And yet. We’re all choosing among a deeply compromised pool of candidates, at least when the field is narrowed to folks who poll above 5 percent. Put it this way. How can you vote for someone who wages an undeclared drone war that kills scores of Pakistani children? Or someone who righteously insisted that indefinite detention is an illegitimate transgression against our civilizational values, and proceeded to support that very practice once he was elected? How can you vote for someone who has claimed to be deeply convicted about abortion on both sides of the issue, constantly misrepresents his record, and demagogues important matters of foreign policy at every opportunity?  Or someone who suggests a religious minority group should be discriminated against? Or who insists that even given the benefit of hindsight, the Iraq War was a just and prudent one?

And yet many of you, Republicans and Democrats, will do just that — just as you and I have voted for a long line of past presidents who’ve deliberately pursued policies of questionable-at-best morality.

In voting for “the lesser of two evils,” there is still evil there — we’re just better at ignoring certain kinds in this fallen world. A national security policy that results in the regular deaths of innocent foreigners in order to maybe make us marginally safer from terrorism is one evil we are very good at ignoring.

Frankly, I think Newt Gingrich is a far bigger flake than Ron Paul. It’s just that he’s flaky in more conventional ways. And his flakiness, I think, represents a far bigger danger to the country than Ron Paul’s. But the awfulness of the other candidates does not somehow make Ron Paul a philosopher-king. We all want somebody pure to vote for. In the 2008 election, I found myself really liking Mike Huckabee, and blogging hard in his favor. Someone who read my blog, and who knew Huckabee well, wrote me to say that it was pretty clear that I wanted a Christian philosopher-king as president, and he was sorry to tell me, but Huck wasn’t that guy. Huck was and is a good man, but that I was projecting my own hopes and desires and frustrations with presidential politics onto Candidate Huckabee, and trying to make him into someone he wasn’t, and could not ever be. This reader, I later saw, was correct. I think a lot of Ron Paul supporters do the same thing.

But who else is there? Gingrich? Romney? Really?

UPDATE: You want to see a Gingrich flake? The light-in-his-pointy-little-loafers dancing elf, man:

(H/T: Andrew Sullivan)