Election ’08: The Collapse of the ‘Frontrunners’

What characterizes the political season so far is what we might call frontrunner collapse. The candidates we were all told were the nearly inevitable winners – Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani – are now hanging on for dear life. Obama is currently pulling ahead of Clinton in Iowa, and the two are neck-and-neck in New Hampshire. John Edwards is also making gains, and before long it may become apparent that the dynastic succession of Queen Hillary to the throne has been upended by those nettlesome noisome peasants-with-pitchforks who insist on defying the conventional wisdom and going their own way.

On the Republican side, the same pattern applies, and in spades: all the Major Candidates have slid down into the abyss, with Former Frontrunner Fred “Not Ready for Prime Time” Thompson relegated to the realm of single digits. Each “frontrunner,” in succession, has been dethroned and cast aside, only to be replaced by a preacher whose brand of backwoods populism is more appealing to what Andrew Sullivan calls the party’s “Christianist” base. Yet it isn’t “Christianism,” whatever that is, that explains Mike Huckabee’s primary appeal. He has broken through to frontrunner status, in spite of the pundits’ disdain, and in large part precisely because of it. The Huckabee “surge” is part of a growing populist backlash against the alleged “wisdom” of our failed elites in politics and the media.

These are the same elites who have now, according to Paul Krugman, decreed that:

“Even now, it’s better for your reputation not to have noticed until, say, 2005 that we had some dangerous people running the country. If you noticed earlier — or, worse yet, you caught on to the administration’s essential mendacity right from the beginning — it’s not a sign that maybe you had good judgment. It shows that you were an irrational Bush hater.”

Obama, of course, was one of those “premature” anti-war types, and so was another fast-rising political figure – Ron Paul, whose warnings of the disaster that would ensue if we invaded Iraq our longtime readers have been enjoying almost since this site’s inception. Now that public opinion has caught up to their prescience, these two outsiders are gaining ground – and Huckabee gains from this pro-outsider phenomenon, which is fueling his rising poll numbers, although he may fade as voters focus on his actual views.

The paradigm that best describes what is happening on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond, isn’t “right” versus “left,” “Christianism” versus secularism, or red-versus-blue state mindsets, but populist demands for change against our hidebound, insular, arrogant elites in the media as well as in government. And no issue has underscored the growing chasm between the people, on the one hand, and the Washington-New York axis of power, on the other, than the war in Iraq. The intersection of the war, as an issue, with the growing populist rebellion against the status quo portends a revolution.

The elites – who sold us the disastrous Iraq war, in the first place, and still believe in the necessity of “victory” – realize this perfectly well, and have done everything in their power to neutralize the war issue, at least insofar as it impacts the presidential horserace: “Dems no longer fight the battle of Iraq,” one news story informs us: “The successes of President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq are quieting things down in another, unexpected place: the Democratic campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Yeah, sure – the great “success” that will cost us as much as two trillion dollars and keep us in Iraq for the next fifty years or so. A few more “successes” like that, and we are done for!

The media is now telling us that the Iraq war is no big deal, and isn’t really an issue anymore, and yet the consequences of that war are defining the political landscape even as they speak. You’ll remember that opponents of the invasion predicted that war with Iraq would destabilize the entire region and ripple outward from Baghdad – and we are seeing that now in the turmoil ripping apart Pakistan, as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto underscores the fragility of an ostensibly pro-US regime that has access to nuclear weapons.

At any moment, a war-weary American public could be confronted with a chorus of calls for the US to intervene militarily in Pakistan – as Obama has previously suggested. With the prospect of a regional war in the Middle East looming larger, the foreign policy issue – which many wrongly believe has been taken off the table this election season – is still front and center. Yet none of the candidates is really taking a truly populist, i.e. antiwar position on this question. Polls show that the majority of Iowa Republicans want us out of Iraq inside of a year – and yet how much of the Republican presidential field would agree with that proposition? On the Democratic side, the antiwar/anti-interventionist sentiment is even stronger – and yet, again, none of the “major” candidates seem to be reflecting that, opting, instead, to echo elite (i.e. interventionist) opinion.

William Schneider of the neocon-controlled American Enterprise Institute intones from his perch at CNN that “experience” is what matters most, now that Pakistan is about to explode, and the League of Former Frontrunners chimes in, with McCain, Giuliani, and Hillary all rushing to tell us that they know Musharraf, and Rudy opining that he can identify with what happened in Pakistan, because, after all, in case you haven’t heard, he was right there when the terrorists attacked us on 9/11 ….

Again, however, the American people are in no mood to listen to these alleged Voices of Experience: they are in what might fairly be called a contrarian mood, and just aren’t heeding all the sage advice coming from the many mouths of the Establishment.

Which is why Ron Paul, in his interview with Wolf Blitzer, hit a home run when he said that he would certainly not send US troops, in “response” to the alleged “crisis” caused by the death of Bhutto. Blitzer looked incredulous, as if he could hardly believe his ears, and yet the ordinary American – who is by now extremely cynical when it comes to "crisis"-mongering – is apt to see the whole thing as overblown. Which, in reality, it is: “extremists” of the al-Qaeda variety are not about to get their hands on Pakistan’s nukes, either by taking over the government – pro-Islamist parties are a tiny minority in Pakistan – or by any other means. The demand to “do something” was explicit in Blitzer’s question to Paul: “What would you do, as President,” in response to this alleged crisis. Paul’s answer, which essentially boils down to “what ‘crisis?'”, is not only true but also has political resonance.

The irony is that the very people who are ringing the alarm over this oversold “threat” are also trying to destabilize the government of President Pervez Musharraf – the only real bulwark against Islamism. The “dump Musharraf” movement extends from liberal Democrats like Bill Richardson, to extreme neocons outside the administration who accuse Musharraf of collaborating with terrorism – this in spite of the fact that the Pakistanis have captured more top Al Qaeda operatives than all the Western countries combined. Paul rightly dissented from this view, while putting the blame for the rise of extremism right where it belongs – on US government support for Pakistan’s dictatorship, and our interventionist policy in the region.

As a force in American politics, the new contrarianism is manifesting itself in a number of ways: the rise of Huckabee, the enthusiasm for Obama, the Ron Paul “Revolution,” and the corresponding failure of the “mainstream” Establishment-approved candidates to catch on. All these aspects of the emerging American zeitgeist are indications that the American people are fed up. They have had it up to here with the “experts” – all experts. It was the rising class of know-it-alls – ensconced in thinktanks and government offices inside the Washington Beltway – who told us we were on our way to a “cakewalk” in Iraq. They’re also done with pundits like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer who were dead wrong about the war, and whom they regard as discredited and no longer worth listening to: both have recently been dropped by Time magazine because, after all, as we libertarians like to point out, the market rules.

The lessons of the past few years have been deeply imprinted on the American psyche and are not about to be erased by a new round of media scare-mongering, or any number of paid political advertisements. The elites are in deep trouble, and they know it. Yet they aren’t going to just give up and go quietly ….

While ideologues of the “left” and the “right” desperately try to shore up the crumbling remnants of the old political paradigm – including the two-party system, as well as the archaic “liberal/conservative” dichotomy – by denouncing heretical “outsiders,” nothing can prevent a veritable stampede of defections from the ranks of the “approved” candidates and causes. What we are seeing is a massive loss of faith in American institutions, and not just politically but also culturally: after all, wasn’t it the “mainstream” media that sold us the Bush administration’s lies in the run-up to war with Iraq? Didn’t the New York Times, the newspaper of record, act as a transmission belt for interventionist propaganda, which later turned out to have been a massive hoax?

The question is: can the American political system, as rigged as it is, accommodate this upsurge of the contrarian spirit? Or will the two party system – encoded in law as well as custom – effectively strangle growing grassroots discontent? If the latter, then the system – and democracy in America – will face some major challenges in the not-too-distant future.


I‘ve been busy with the holiday season, of course, but I haven’t shirked my literary duties: I’m blogging over at Taki’s Top Drawer, and here’s something about the campaign (oh, what a naughty video!), and here are my Christmas Eve thoughts on the war.

I note, with satisfaction, that the New York Times has retracted the odious attack on Ron Paul by one Virginia Heffernan: I believe this and this had something to do with generating a massive enough protest to force the editors of the Old Grey Lady to back down and tell the truth. Charles Johnson and Markos Moulitsa are both squirming, albeit in silence – and that’s a good thing. Yes, the Smear Bund never rests, but sometime it loses.

What really needs to be retracted, however, is something that was not mentioned in Heffernan’s mea culpa, and that is her description of Johnson’s web site, “Little Green Footballs,” as “rigidly empiricist.” This phraseology beggars belief to anyone – outside of this guy – who has experienced the free-flowing river of hatred for all things Arabic and Muslim that courses through the site and its comment threads. If support for extreme Israeli nationalism and a vitriolic animus toward adherents of Islam is evidence of a rigid empiricism, then we truly have slipped into a Bizarro World alternate universe, where obsessed loons are honored as profound thinkers.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].