DES MOINES — At nearly every event, Ron Paul begins on a high note. He generally smiles, introduces a member of his family, talks up his campaign and says how pleased he is with the way things are going.
And then, for the next 45 minutes or so, he outlines a view of the world so bleak it would make Chicken Little sound like an optimist.
There will be a total collapse of the economy. An eruption of violence in the streets. Martial law is just around the corner.
Paul says he would like to cut $1 trillion out of the budget.
“People say that means everybody will suffer,” he adds. Some probably will, he concedes, but “they should have to suffer.”
And then there are the sorts of ominous predictions he made at an evening rally here Wednesday: “There are certain events that are coming that are going to happen — they are going to be very dangerous. They might come in a day, a week or a year.”
Not exactly morning in America.
Paul’s sky-is-falling message goes against everything a successful American politician is supposed to do. In the land of hope and change, where a little malaise can undercut a campaign, it is almost always the sunniest candidate who succeeds.
But the Republican congressman from Texas is betting that the usual optimism and laundry list of promises — millions of jobs, bringing people together, changing the tone in Washington — is not what voters want to hear this year. The latest Iowa polls, which show Paul in a virtual tie for first place with Mitt Romney ahead of Tuesday’s caucuses, suggest that he has found an audience.
“I want someone to give it to me straight. We aren’t getting a lot of fluff, and he isn’t offering us a prize or a present or something to make us feel good,” said Tom Icatar, 65, who saw Paul at a West Des Moines town hall. “I think he’s been consistent and honest. He is giving people the bitter medicine they need to have.”
Jordan Sorensen, 23, of Adele, Iowa, said after an event in Perry that “we’ve heard the same old political talk of promising this and that. Ron Paul isn’t the most brilliant speaker, he isn’t great with rhetoric, but it’s refreshing for me to hear something that’s more truthful. He is realistic about what he is working with, and he is less full of it.”
The fact that Paul is resonating with some voters is more reflective of the moment than the man. Paul has long spoken in such apocalyptic terms, but after years of war and financial hardship, his leave-’em-alone foreign policy and get-the-government-off-my-lawn domestic approach is a match for the times. And to his backers, his anti-politician demeanor confirms their sense that he’s telling the truth, unlike what they see as a bunch of overproduced alternatives.
“The others are political-machinery people. They change their message to tell us what we want to hear, not what’s actually needed,” Steve Chase, 63, said at the event in Perry. Paul, he said, is “the least likely to create a situation that will lead to the destruction of everything.”
Most of Paul’s rivals also lay out the difficulties America faces — it’s just that it’s not all they focus on.
Gov. Rick Perry, in ads and on the stump, talks up his faith and his idyllic childhood in Paint Creek, Tex., where he says he learned the value of hard work. He touts the millions of jobs created in Texas on his watch and how domestic energy production can create many millions more.
In Romney’s ads, there are green fields, kids playing baseball, factory workers strolling on the shop floor, and soundtracks of soothing music as the candidate strolls hand in hand with his wife, Ann.
And in his speeches, Romney quotes “America the Beautiful,” promises more and better jobs (11 million to be exact) and invokes what he sees as a pre-Obama heyday linked to Ronald Reagan.
“I’m asking each of you to remember how special it is to be an American,” Romney said in Davenport on Tuesday. “That America is still out there. We still believe in that America. We still believe in that shining city on a hill. We still believe in the America that brings out the best in all of us, that challenges each of us to be better and bigger than ourselves.”
The speech later became the basis for a Romney ad called “American Optimism.”
Paul offers little of this. His ads and rhetoric are filled with images of destruction and decline. There are shuttered stores, dark clouds, barking dogs, and federal department buildings lined up for destruction all set to to urgent music.
Paul says sanctions on Iran will lead to another useless and costly foreign war. Mounting debts and more bailouts will lead to the government printing more money, which will make the dollar worthless. The latest bill to fund the Defense Department is a slip into tyranny.
“If we continue to do what we do, if we have runaway inflation, everybody gets thrown out on the streets, because the whole thing comes down on our head,” he said last week at a town hall at the Iowa Speedway in Newton, in front of about 200 people.
At another stop, he said: “If we continue to [spend money overseas], we will have an economic calamity, we will have runaway inflation . . . we will have violence in the streets, and that will be very, very dangerous.”
Paul does offer a solution to avoid all the calamity he sees — lawmakers should just follow what’s laid out in the Constitution — but he makes no promises to directly improve people’s lives.
“All of a sudden, people are tired of the wars, they are tired of this economy, they are tired of the Federal Reserve, they are tired of Congress spending a lot of money, and they are looking for some change,” Paul said, summing up the state of mind of his audiences. “And I am suggesting one significant change. Why don’t we just follow the Constitution?”
There is one radical change Paul likes: the Internet.
“Fortunately we’re able to get some information out, and a lot of what we’ve done in our campaign makes use of the Internet,” Paul said at a rally in Des Moines.
As might be expected, however, Paul anticipates a problem or two on that front as well.
“But also,” he went on to say, “there’s an attack on the Internet now.”