A star had just been born when, a day after the May 15 Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, I met Texas Representative Ron Paul for lunch on Capitol Hill. The meeting had been scheduled for several days; but, as luck would have it, the previous night Paul had gone from an oddball obscurity to a major sensation in the political world when, answering a question about September 11, he seemed to suggest that the attacks were justified by an aggressive U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. "They attack us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for ten years," Paul explained. The ever-macho Rudy Giuliani was quick to pounce. "That's an extraordinary statement," he marveled. "And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that." The crowd roared its approval. A previously flagging Giuliani suddenly enjoyed his best moment of the race.
But it was also, oddly enough, Paul's best moment. The response to his comments was fast and furious: Angry Republicans, including the party chairman in Michigan, former Senate candidate Michael Steele, and unnamed South Carolina sources cited on Fox News, called for his exclusion from future debates. Sean Hannity couldn't wait to bully Paul in a post-debate interview. John McCain even added a line to his stump speech bashing him. But the outrage was instructive: Suddenly, Republicans were taking seriously a quirky 71-year-old Texas libertarian whose national support has hovered in the zero-percent range.
Nor was the attention all negative. Far from it. Paul won several instant polls on the debate, including one at the conservative Newsmax.com and a Fox News text-message poll. Incredibly, Paul's name began beating out "Paris Hilton" as the number-one query on the popular blog-searching website Technorati. (Granted, it's possible that Paul's fervent supporters are manipulating such online metrics.) The incident prompted a feisty exchange among the ladies of ABC's "The View," of all places. And, to top it off, within a day of the debate, Paul's campaign had raised $100,000 — about one-sixth of his entire haul for the first three months of 2007. Paul's spokesman says the campaign headquarters has been "inundated with phone calls" ever since — 80 percent of them supportive.
When Paul ambled through the door of a cheap Mexican joint on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, he hardly looked like a freshly-minted celebrity. His slight frame, elfin face, and reserved persona suggest the doctor he used to be, not a politician. But Paul turned heads all the same. As he approached his table, a man seated nearby extended his hand with a broad smile and a hearty "congratulations." Paul explained that he had received a similar reception among his colleagues in the House. "I've had probably ten people come up to me and compliment me — including people I thought were war hawks," he said. "It was a tremendous boost to the campaign."
Who would have expected it? At its outset, Paul's campaign promised to be a curiosity. The nominee of the Libertarian Party in his previous run for the presidency (in 1988), Paul seemed likely to play a predictable gadfly role — using his stage time to press hoary libertarian bugaboos like the abolition of Social Security, the legalization of drugs and prostitution, and — Paul's special obsession — a return to the gold standard. Instead, thanks mainly to his adamant opposition to the Iraq war, he has assumed a far more serious role. In a Republican field that has marched in lockstep with George W. Bush on the war, Paul's libertarian isolationism has exposed an intraparty fissure over foreign policy that is far wider than has been acknowledged, encompassing not only disgruntled libertarians but some paleocons and social conservatives, as well as such GOP lions as William F. Buckley, George Will, and Bob Novak. As populist-isolationist Pat Buchanan wrote in an op-ed last week, Paul was "speaking intolerable truths. Understandably, Republicans do not want him back, telling the country how the party blundered into this misbegotten war."
Paul, for his part, thinks his view is commonsensical. "This is a very Republican position," he told me. "I just think the Republicans can't win unless they change their policy on Iraq."
Before Paul became an antiwar hero, his support consisted largely of libertarian activists — people like Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian Party's 2004 presidential nominee. Badnarik refuses to get a driver's license (even though, he conceded to me, "I have my car operational") and warns against anyone who might try to force a smallpox or anthrax vaccination on him. ("You bring the syringe, I'll bring my .45, and we'll see who makes a bigger hole.") Badnarik recounts rallying support for Paul at a recent conference of the Free State Project, a group of libertarians who have relocated to New Hampshire in the hope of concentrating their power and more or less taking over the state government. "I asked how many people would drive without a license and not pay income taxes, and three-quarters raised their hands," Badnarik recalls. "I'm choking up. I've got my heart in my throat. And I said, 'We need to do something — and Ron Paul's campaign is the shining star. We need to contribute the full two thousand dollars now. Tell all your friends.'"