Note: Watch reason editor Nick Gillespie debate Bill O'Reilly on Ron Paul's candidacy at Fox News.
On the morning of October 30, a large group of people gathered outside The Tonight Show’s Burbank studio. According to GloZell, a local eccentric who attends every taping of the show, only the lines attracted by Hollywood heartthrobs such as George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, and Daniel Radcliffe had ever come close to matching the crowd’s size and enthusiasm. But this throng had gathered to cheer Ron Paul, a 72-year-old obstetrician and Air Force veteran turned Texas congressman. Paul was there to hawk not a movie or a record but his long-shot campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
During the broadcast, host Jay Leno respectfully attended to Paul’s calls for hard money, withdrawal from Iraq, and a flat income tax of zero. Offstage, Leno got Paul to autograph his copy of the congressman’s recent book, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship.
Later in the show, while performing “Anarchy in the U.K.” with a reunited Sex Pistols, punk icon Johnny Rotten gave Paul a thumbs-up and a “Hello, Mr. Paul,” later adding, “When are we getting out of Iraq?” In between, more ambiguously, he waggled his ass in Paul’s general direction. But he shook hands with the congressman afterward, and according to Paul supporters on the scene he expressed respect to him privately. Paul, watching the broadcast with supporters at a Hollywood Hills fundraiser that evening, shook his head at the aging punk’s antics, noting, well, we do promote tolerance.…
That day encapsulated Paul’s surprising campaign. It featured a powerful show of grassroots support, respect from unexpected places, and an infiltration of radical ideas into American mainstream culture. There was the aging iconoclast Rotten, mixing the anarchy he stood for as a kid and the market capitalism he lived out as an adult (the Pistols had reunited to help promote the video game Guitar Hero III), symbolizing the range of liberties Paul represents to a movement that includes both Christian homeschoolers and heathen punks. And there was the question so many Americans want answered, the question central to Paul’s campaign as the only Republican candidate opposed to the war: When are we getting out of Iraq?
When the Paul campaign began, most of the political cognoscenti considered it a quixotic joke. Now it’s one of the hottest stories of the season. The reason for the turnaround is money. On November 5 alone, Paul took in a gigantic haul of $4.3 million. His third quarter 2007 draw nearly matched that of the far more famous John McCain, and his net cash on hand going into the primaries exceeded that of everyone but front-runner Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson (though millionaire Mitt Romney has his personal reserves to fall back on). As of press time, in the fourth quarter of 2007, Paul had collected $10.7 million, generally in amounts well below the legal $2,300 maximum for individual donations.
By November, Ron Paul was getting respect from surprising and prominent places. Conservative bigthinker George Will called Paul “my man” on ABC. Texas singer-songwriter-novelist Kinky Friedman told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Paul is “probably telling the truth.” Singer-songwriter John Mayer was caught on video informing a pal that “Ron Paul knows the Constitution, and I’m down with that.” Even Eleanor Clift, conventional wisdom on the hoof, said on The McLaughlin Group that “Ron Paul with his antiwar libertarian message will be the story coming out of New Hampshire for the Republicans.”
Paul is also the wonder of the Internet, with campaign mojo fueled almost entirely by his shockingly large number of fans on Meetup.com, a website that allows people with a shared interest to find one another and meet offline. Paul has more than 67,000 Meetup followers, about 20 times more than his nearest competitor, Barack Obama. That virtual presence has translated into more than just donations. Five thousand Paul supporters showed up at a November rally in Philadelphia, and his poll numbers in New Hampshire reached 8 percent in a mid-November CBS/New York Times survey—exceeding both Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.
If news is the unexpected, Ron Paul’s rise was the news of the presidential campaign last fall. But Paul himself is not news. He’s been pushing his libertarian values, derived from his love of the U.S. Constitution and the Austrian school of free market economics, through all of his 10 terms in Congress and in between. (He has served in Congress three times: from 1976 to 1977, from 1979 to 1983, and from 1997 to the present. He ran for president as a Libertarian in 1988.) What’s news is the self-styled Ron Paul Revolution—his mass of self-coordinating supporters. The candidate’s critics invented the term “Paulistas” to mock those supporters as wild-eyed radicals. Many of them then claimed the word for themselves, adopting it as a badge of honor.
Four years ago, Howard Dean’s Democratic campaign offered an earlier example of a grassroots mass movement that came pretty much from nowhere, beholden to no power structure, decentralized in how it got information and in how it organized itself to act. But the Ron Paul Revolution adds a twist: This movement is passionately dedicated to a smaller, less activist government.
As this is written, before a single primary vote has been cast, it’s difficult to predict this movement’s future, especially when you remember how Dean’s campaign imploded after the Iowa caucus. But Paul’s backers are confident their man will at the very least be a new Goldwater. He might not win the presidency, they say, but he will reignite excitement about small government in his party and his country, and thus might help reverse the last half century and more of government growth and activism in both domestic and foreign policy.
In the last weekend of October, after months of following Ron Paul action on the Internet and locally in Los Angeles, I tagged along with the Ron Paul road show in Iowa. Over the course of just 24 hours stretched over two days, I saw Paul talk to more than 500 college kids in Ames, more than 700 assorted Des Moines citizens, hundreds of state GOP activists, and a dozen Des Moines area pastors. I saw a skilled politician with a diverse and disproportionately young band of backers—supporters who stretched far beyond a traditional Republican Party base, who loved their man and his message with an enthusiasm undaunted by whatever his electoral prospects turn out to be.
‘Dr. Paul Cured My Apathy’
On the Friday evening before Halloween, Paul is scheduled to speak at Iowa State University in Ames. To get from Des Moines to Ames, I hop on the Constitution Coach, a former school bus owned by Dave Keagle, a Christian homeschooling father of seven. Keagle’s wife, Christa, and their children are on board, along with a dozen or so other Paul supporters. The bus is painted red, white, and blue, with slogans summing up Paul’s message: “Taxpayer’s Best Friend.” “No Amnesty.” “No NAFTA.” “No National ID.” “No Patriot Act.” “Pro-Gun Owner.” “Life.” “Liberty.” “Freedom.” Christa tells me Paul is the first candidate her family has ever been able to get behind 100 percent, with no reservations. She was also impressed with how Paul was able to relate to and remember the names of all her kids on a previous Iowa campaign swing.
I talk to John Carle Jr., a 43-year-old self-employed CPA who dabbles in real estate, and his wife, Meredith, a Korean orphan brought to America as a child. Like most of the Paulistas I meet, he’s fresh to politics, with no history of activism or enthusiasm for any candidate from any party. He’s not a part of any existing Republican base: He’s a disaffected independent who thinks he’s finally found a politician who “oozes integrity” and “is inspiring the best in people.” Paul’s the only candidate he trusts on post-9/11 civil liberties issues. “If they can pick anyone off the streets and send them to a secret camp,” Carle says, “I don’t wanna be part of that country.”