September 24, 2007
JOHN J. MILLER
On the Fourth of July, thousands gathered on fields by the Iowa State football stadium, spread out their blankets, and waited for a fireworks show to begin. Around twilight, a minivan started circling the crowd, carrying a well-lit sign that advertised the long-shot presidential campaign of Texas congressman Ron Paul.
“Everybody noticed, so it seemed like a nice idea, a clever move,” says a local resident who was there. A few minutes later, another Paul vehicle appeared. Then a third. “They just kept driving back and forth. It got to be too much. People started murmuring and laughing — it was definitely overkill.”
Paul’s quixotic quest for the GOP nomination is based upon the hope that Republican primary voters will respond in an altogether different way: The more they come to know him, the more they’ll come to like him. Up to now, he has yet to register above 2 or 3 in any public-opinion poll. Yet his campaign has shown some surprising signs of life. “Everything’s going better than expected,” he says. “Clinton and Carter also were unknown the summer before their nominations.”
Paul finished fifth in August’s ballyhooed Iowa Straw Poll, but he has won several lesser contests in different venues, such as Allegheny County, Pa., Stafford County, N.H., and the West Alabama Republican Assembly in Tuscaloosa. He isn’t flush with cash, but he recently had more money in the bank than John McCain, according to Federal Election Commission filings. His hard-core supporters have gained a reputation for their web-savvy enthusiasm.
Can Paul emerge from the pack of GOP also-rans and begin to nip at the heels of the frontrunners? Perhaps conservatives, wanting to renew their first principles, will find themselves attracted to his rock-solid opposition to the growth of government. Maybe a few are primed to hear his harsh criticism of the war in Iraq, which he opposed before the first bombs fell on Baghdad. But are they willing to go so far out on a fringe as to support a guy who didn’t even vote for his own party’s nominee, George W. Bush, in 2000 or 2004? For that to happen, Republican unease with the president would have to transform into open revolt. It may turn out that the more conservatives learn about the idiosyncratic Paul, the more they’ll be glad that there’s precisely one of him in Congress — and that other Republican candidates stand a much better chance of becoming the next president.
The 72-year-old Paul is arguably the most successful libertarian politician in America. The biography on his 2008 campaign website doesn’t say so, but he was actually the Libertarian party’s candidate for president in 1988. He carried less than one half of 1 percent of the popular vote. In 1991, he started to lay the groundwork for a presidential bid within the GOP, but he dropped out when Pat Buchanan jumped in.
Each of Paul’s political victories has come as a Republican. Despite his failures on the national stage, he has in fact demonstrated a remarkable durability over the years, winning election to the House ten times across four decades. His congressional career began in 1976, went on hiatus after a Senate primary defeat in 1984 (Phil Gramm trounced him), and resumed with his election once again in 1996. He’s almost certainly the only member of Congress to display a picture of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises in his office.
Paul was born in Pittsburgh and attended medical school at Duke. In 1962, he received an Army draft notice, prompting him to volunteer for the Air Force as a flight surgeon. He eventually settled in coastal Texas — “My wife and I were looking for a warm climate” — and became an obstetrician in private practice. Many politicians like to kiss babies; Paul has actually delivered some 4,000 of them.
During the 1960s, Paul received his first exposure to the ideas of classical liberalism. “I was in a conservative book club, reading The Road to Serfdom by Hayek and the novels of Ayn Rand,” he says. The work of Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education also influenced him.
As a member of Congress, he has tried to stay true to the principles of these groups and intellectuals. In the process, he has developed one of the most singular voting records in Washington. His nickname is “Dr. No” because he so frequently opposes legislation that just about every one of his colleagues supports. A resolution to honor Rosa Parks? No. A condemnation of the Sudanese government? No. A demand that Vietnam release political prisoners? No.
“The first question I always ask is whether something is authorized by the Constitution,” he says. “If it isn’t, then I vote against it.” Some consider this an exercise in high principle. “On limited government, he’s the yardstick by which the rest of us can judge ourselves,” says Jeff Flake, a congressman from Arizona. Others see it as foolish: His voting record is a golden opportunity for attack-ad specialists to exploit.
In reality, it may be a combination of the two, as Paul has made a career of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 82.3 percent — a decent mark, but hardly hall-of-fame stuff. His score suffers every time he opposes a measure that most mainstream conservatives support, such as tariff-lowering trade deals. “I’m absolutely for free trade, more so than any other member of the House,” he boasts. “But I’m against managed trade.” The result is a record that is indistinguishable from that of a left-wing protectionist. The Central American Free Trade Agreement? No. The Australia Free Trade Agreement? No. Presidential trade-promotion authority? No.
It may comfort Paul to believe that nothing blemishes his ideological spotlessness, but many conservative reformers regard him as an obstacle. Last year, Congress considered legislation to slow the growth of entitlements by $40 billion over five years. Democrats portrayed it as a ruthless attack on social services. Every one of them voted against it, and a handful of liberal Republicans joined them. So did Paul. The bill just didn’t meet his standard of libertarian purity, apparently because it didn’t bring the growth of government to a screeching halt. It passed by a single vote. “We all admire his principles,” says one GOP staffer. “But he just isn’t a strategic thinker.”
A strategic thinker is able to make tough choices, plus a few that aren’t so tough. Asked whether he voted for Bush in 2004, Paul says no: “He misled us in 2000, when he talked about a humble foreign policy.” So did he vote for Bush in 2000? “I didn’t vote for him then, either. I wasn’t convinced he was a conservative.” So whom did he vote for? “I’m not saying. It doesn’t matter.” Confronted by a couple of decisions that didn’t strike many conservatives as close calls — Bush versus John Kerry, and Bush versus Al Gore — Paul evidently chose to opt out. It must have been the principled thing to do.
There’s been no shortage of principle with respect to his views on the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Apart from a post-9/11 vote authorizing the use of force in Afghanistan, he’s been against virtually every aspect of it. “We should be following the Founders — no entangling alliances,” he says. He would bring U.S. troops home from Iraq and just about everywhere else, permit trade with Cuba, and lift sanctions on Iran. “I’m not an isolationist,” he says. “The real problem is the neo-isolationists — the people who are making us everybody’s enemy.”
Lines like that led to the one moment when Paul had a tangible effect on the presidential race. At the GOP debate in South Carolina in May, Paul blamed the terrorism of 9/11 on U.S. interventionism — “because we’ve been over there, we’ve been bombing Iraq for ten years.” Then Rudy Giuliani chimed in: “That’s an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11th: that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th.” The audience wildly cheered Giuliani in what was perhaps the most electric moment of the GOP race to date. When pressed by Giuliani to withdraw his comment, Paul doubled down: “I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us. They come and they attack us because we’re over there.”
A more adept anti-war candidate probably wouldn’t have let Giuliani turn the tables so effectively. He might even discomfort the hawkish frontrunners, putting them on the defensive whenever they discuss foreign policy and the military. Paul’s views on 9/11 aren’t as cockamamie as they sound at first blush — Osama bin Laden, after all, repeatedly has identified American involvement in the Middle East as an incitement. Whether that obliges America’s disengagement from the world is another matter. Whatever the case, Paul’s fundamental achievement so far has been to energize supporters of the war. He makes Giuliani’s views seem sensible and his own merely an exotic sub-species of blame-America-first pacifism.
It’s hard to see why conservatives would ever say yes to Dr. No.