Colbert and Paul: Now South Carolina Gets Interesting

Is it just me, or is it absurd that voters in South Carolina — and Iowa and New Hampshire — have such a big say in who will be the Republican nominee for president? By the time voters get in the queue here in Ohio, it will most likely be game over with Mitt leading the pack. So we might as well just sit back and enjoy Stephen Colbert and Ron Paul.

Colbert announced last night that he was forming an exploratory committee to consider a run for all the marbles — well, maybe. Or not. Here’s from the NYT, “Colbert for President: A Run or a Comedy Riff?“:

If anyone can make a mockery of the newest campaign finance innovation, the “super PAC,” it’s Stephen Colbert.

Mr. Colbert, the Comedy Central television host, has made jokes at the expense of super PACs for months — forming his own group, soliciting money for it, then running an ad that featured Buddy Roemer, a long-shot candidate who has criticized the Supreme Court decision that allows the existence of the free-spending PACs so long as they do not explicitly coordinate with candidates.

On Thursday night’s “Colbert Report,” Mr. Colbert took it a big step further, handing control of his group to his friend and fellow host Jon Stewart so that he can legally run for president, or at least pretend to. Mr. Colbert, who has comically flirted with — and mocked the possibility of — runs for political office before, said he would form an “exploratory committee for president of the United States of South Carolina.”

Riffing off his claimed dissatisfaction with the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, Mr. Colbert has repeatedly suggested to his fans that he should hop in the race. A write-in bid in South Carolina, where Mr. Colbert grew up, would almost certainly create some media excitement in the days leading up to the Jan. 21 primary, but probably less electoral excitement.

But first he had to distance himself from his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

“You cannot be a candidate and run a super PAC. That would be coordinating with yourself,” Trevor Potter, Mr. Colbert’s lawyer and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, told him on Thursday’s show. But “you could have it run by somebody else,” even a friend or business partner, Mr. Potter said — illuminating what critics say is an inappropriate loophole in the law. So Mr. Colbert brought out Mr. Stewart of “The Daily Show,” who played along with the joke, saying, “I’d be honored to” help.

Sarcastically emphasizing that they would not coordinate Mr. Colbert’s real or imagined presidential race with Mr. Stewart’s ad spending, Mr. Colbert said “From now on, I will have to talk about my plans on my TV show.” Mr. Stewart, whose show immediately precedes Mr. Colbert’s at 11 p.m., shot back, “I don’t even know when it’s on.”

The two men then signed what they said was the necessary paperwork and discussed making Mr. Colbert a volunteer for the super PAC, which Mr. Potter said might be possible.

Though humorous, Mr. Colbert’s discussions about super PACs have had an educational and perhaps energizing effect among some members of his young audience. When Mr. Potter told the two comedians that “being business partners does not count as coordination, legally,” there were groans of disgust from some in the studio audience.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Mr. Colbert cited a recent poll of likely Republican voters by Public Policy Polling that showed 5 percent support for him in South Carolina, slightly ahead of Jon M. Huntsman Jr., with 4 percent. The poll’s methodology has been questioned, but for Mr. Colbert, it’s enough for a few weeks’ worth of comedic material.

Of course, I guess the real danger is that Mitt will get the nomination and then we’ll be for a few months’ worth of comedic material. Oh, Sarah. Where are you when we need you? I digress.

Anyway, Colbert is making a serious point here. The so-called super PACs are absurd — and represent a threat in a democracy to how we nominate and elect public officials.

Another candidate who is making a serious point or two is Ron Paul — even though he acknowledges that he won’t win the nomination or be sitting in the Oval Office anytime soon. I kinda like someone who isn’t afraid to stand up and defend personal liberty. And yeah, some of his positions are way out there: probably not a great idea to let Iran accumulate nuclear weapons. Yet I’m not so sure this country would be much worse off without the Federal Reserve. Hey, the Maestro couldn’t see the housing bubble even when it showed up on the tip of his nose.

Anyway, I’ll defer to someone who may actually know something about Ron Paul and what’s going on in South Carolina and elsewhere, Charles Krauthammer, who opines in WaPo this a.m., “Ron Paul’s achievement“:

Paul commands a strong, energetic, highly committed following. And he is unlike any of the other candidates. They’re out to win. He admits he doesn’t see himself in the Oval Office. They’re one-time self-contained enterprises aiming for the White House. Paul is out there to build a movement that will long outlive this campaign.

Paul is less a candidate than a “cause,” to cite his election-night New Hampshire speech. Which is why that speech was the only one by a losing candidate that was sincerely, almost giddily joyous. The other candidates had to pretend they were happy with their results.

Paul was genuinely delighted with his, because, after a quarter-century in the wilderness, he’s within reach of putting his cherished cause on the map. Libertarianism will have gone from the fringes — those hopeless, pathetic third-party runs — to a position of prominence in a major party.

Look at him now. He’s getting prime-time air, interviews everywhere and, most important, respect for defeating every Republican candidate but one. His goal is to make himself leader of the opposition — within the Republican Party.

He is Jesse Jackson of the 1980s, who represented a solid, African American, liberal-activist constituency to which, he insisted, attention had to be paid by the Democratic Party. Or Pat Buchanan (briefly) in 1992, who demanded — and gained — on behalf of social conservatives a significant role at a convention that was supposed to be a simple coronation of the moderate George H.W. Bush.

No one remembers Bush’s 1992 acceptance speech. Everyone remembers Buchanan’s fiery and disastrous culture-war address.

At the Democratic conventions, Jackson’s platform demands and speeches drew massive attention, often overshadowing his party’s blander nominees.

Paul won’t quit before the Republican convention in Tampa. He probably will not do well in South Carolina or Florida, but with volunteers even in the more neglected caucus states, he will be relentlessly collecting delegates until Tampa. His goal is to have the second-most delegates, a position of leverage from which to influence the platform and demand a prime-time speaking slot — before deigning to support the nominee at the end. The early days of the convention, otherwise devoid of drama, could very well be all about Paul.

The Democratic convention will be a tightly scripted TV extravaganza extolling the Prince and his wise and kindly rule. The Republican convention could conceivably feature a major address by Paul calling for the abolition of the Fed, FEMA and the CIA; American withdrawal from everywhere; acquiescence to the Iranian bomb — and perhaps even Paul’s opposition to a border fence lest it be used to keep Americans in. Not exactly the steady, measured, reassuring message a Republican convention might wish to convey. For libertarianism, however, it would be a historic moment: mainstream recognition at last.

Put aside your own view of libertarianism or of Paul himself. I see libertarianism as an important critique of the Leviathan state, not a governing philosophy. As for Paul himself, I find him a principled, somewhat wacky, highly engaging eccentric. But regardless of my feelings or yours, the plain fact is that Paul is nurturing his movement toward visibility and legitimacy.

Paul is 76. He knows he’ll never enter the promised land. But he’s clearing the path for son Rand, his better placed (Senate vs. House), more moderate, more articulate successor.

And it matters not whether you find amusement in libertarians practicing dynastic succession. What Paul has already wrought is a signal achievement, the biggest story yet of this presidential campaign.

And if Colbert actually got into the race and later teamed up with Paul, well, who knows. Maybe the Anybody-But-Mitt crowd would actually have something to chuckle about.

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