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.'"
But libertarians are a fractious bunch, and some hardcore activists have mixed feelings about the man now carrying their banner. For instance, libertarian purists generally support a laissez-faire government attitude toward abortion and gay marriage, as well as "open border" immigration policies and unfettered free trade. Yet Paul opposes gay marriage, believes states should outlaw abortion, decries high immigration rates, and criticizes free trade agreements — though mainly on constitutional grounds. (These divergences may be explained by Paul's socially conservative East Texas district, which lies adjacent to Tom DeLay's former district and which President Bush last carried with 67 percent of the vote. Being pro-choice simply doesn't fly there.)
As a result, Paul's candidacy leaves some of his erstwhile libertarian fans cold — particularly the intellectuals who congregate in Washington outfits like the CATO Institute or Reason magazine. "He comes from a more right-wing populist approach," explains Brian Doherty, a California-based Reason editor and author of Radicals for Capitalism, a history of the libertarian movement. "Culturally, he strikes a lot of the more cosmopolitan libertarians as a yokel." (Doherty himself is a Paul admirer.)
And, while some libertarians criticize Paul from the left on social issues, others are swiping at him from the right over the war. "Will Libertarianism Survive Ron Paul?" asked one article on the America's Future Foundation website, before continuing, "Paul's prominence threatens to make his blame-America instincts the defining characteristic of libertarianism in the public imagination. If libertarianism becomes inextricably associated with radical pacifism, will young people with classically liberal instincts be discouraged from serious political engagement?"
Paul's provocations have roiled the waters back home as well. After the fateful debate, the largest paper in Paul's district ran a story headlined, "some say Paul should resign." More ominously, a former longtime aide, Eric Dondero, is now planning to knock his former boss out of Congress in 2008. A self-described Barry Goldwater-style "pro-military libertarian," Dondero first worked for Paul during his 1988 presidential campaign and finally left his office three years ago. He says it was bad enough begging Paul to support the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing military force in Afghanistan. But Paul's September 11 moment in the debate was the final straw. The next day, Dondero posted a blog item on RedState.com declaring his intention to unseat his one-time hero. "One of the really bad things about his piss-poor [debate] performance," Dondero told me, "is that now everyone in the country is going to think that all libertarians think the same way that he does."
Paul seems only to relish his newfound notoriety. "I enjoy dealing in the area of ideas," he told me over lunch. "And I want to make a difference." Paul also carries with him a certainty that he will be vindicated — and not just on Iraq. He is utterly convinced, for instance, that the United States is headed for an economic disaster that can only be averted by the adoption of the gold standard, a topic that has obsessed him for years. When I ask him why, at 71, he's putting himself through the ordeal of a national campaign, this — not Iraq — is the point to which he returns: "If there's an economic collapse," he says almost wistfully, "maybe I'll be in the right place at the right time." It's another slogan not suited for a bumper sticker, and another you would only hear from Ron Paul.
By Michael Crowley
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