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Red Meat Season

[My story in Outlook. Tomorrow I'll add the annotations, amendations, explications, corrections, retractions, and abject apologies to all involved.]

Ron Paul often looks aghast, as though cartoon steam is about to whistle from his ears. He has the startled look of someone who has discovered, once again, that he is the only sane person in the room. Paul had the full, wide-eyed, everyone's-gone-loony look last Tuesday night in the "spin room" after the latest Republican presidential debate, as he criticized candidates who seemed willing to nuke Iran.

"I was shocked! I was shocked!" said the libertarian congressman from Texas. His rivals for the GOP nomination, he believes, are espousing an immoral position that is actually a form of pandering.

"They're worried about the immediate next election, which is the Republican primary, and anything they can do to pander, they'll do it, and they'll forget about what they believe in, they'll forget about the Constitution, they'll forget about building coalitions."

Coalitions? Not a word you hear often on the campaign trail these days. We're already deep into Red Meat Season. This is the season of the marginal candidate whose voice rises higher and higher until it threatens to reach a pitch that only a dog could hear. It's the time when candidates try on entirely new political ideologies the way teenage girls try on skirts at Abercrombie. (If you're Mitt Romney, Reaganesque conservatism is the new black.)

What's different this election cycle is the brutally long primary season -- a full year of posturing, base baiting, sniping and heel nipping that only a political junkie could love. We'll be on this red-meat diet for so long it may kill us.

It's no secret that candidates play to the base during the primary season, and that nominees drift toward the center for the general election. But the center has become a killing ground. The 2008 campaign has backed up through the pipes so far into 2007 that it may have become impossible for lawmakers to get anything major accomplished. Consider the abrupt demise in the Senate of the compromise immigration bill. Compromise? That's collaboration with the enemy! (Meanwhile, we wonder why those dang Iraqis can't get along with one another.)

John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and others have discovered how hard it is to be both a lawmaker and a presidential candidate. All have been targeted for straying from ideological purity. Joe Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware, said the other day, "Folks, being commander in chief requires you to occasionally be practical." What? Doesn't he realize it's Red Meat Season?

The presidential race has been in fifth gear since late last year. Something is wrong with an election process that oozes across time and space to envelop our entire political culture. The campaigning has become unmoored from the crucial event of voting -- those clarifying moments when citizens go into a school cafeteria or church basement and cast ballots. The first caucuses and primaries are still seven months away, and the general election won't take place for 17 months. We're all going to need a survival strategy. Like: Hide under the covers.

Candidates have been campaigning up a storm, yet the national polls have hardly budged. No second-tier hopeful has made a dramatic move. Most normal, non-politics-obsessed people still aren't paying attention. There aren't five people in America who can identify Mike Gravel on sight, and no one knows Duncan Hunter from Duncan Hines. And who's Ron Paul? Why doesn't he have a last name? Does he know George Ringo?

Only partisans are paying attention, and partisans aren't political vegans. So anyone seeking the party's nomination must know how to serve up the big slabs of flesh. For Democratic candidates, that means proving that you abhor and abominate George W. Bush more than anyone else on Earth; for Republicans, that's starting to mean pretty much the same thing. Democrats say Bush is a monster; Republicans say he's something worse -- a liberal.

The classic red-meat Republican issues are God, guns and gays, but this year immigration has rapidly become the juiciest one, even more so than the Iraq war. Someone like McCain may say on the stump, again and again, that there's no way to round up 12 million illegal immigrants and send them back home, but some of his rivals advocate precisely that. I asked Duncan Hunter, the GOP congressman from California whose immigration policy is built around the idea of a really big fence, what he'd do with the illegal immigrants here. His answer: Shoo 'em out.

"You realize we deport thousands of people every month," he told me. "We tell folks, 'You have to go home. Make your country a good country. Put pressure on your government if you don't like things. Get after those congressmen in Mexico and those congressmen in other countries.' "

Go home and start a petition drive. Pass out fliers.

[Click here to keep reading.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 10, 2007; 8:23 AM ET
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