Ron Paul by now is well-known for many things, yet he remains an underrated retail politician. Paul has the extraordinary distinction of having won a seat in Congress as a nonincumbent on three separate occasions. After fighting his own Republican Party to regain a House seat in 1996 (the GOP establishment preferred a turncoat Democrat in the primary), Dr. No has won re-election in the 14th Congressional District of Texas by progressively larger margins in every campaign but one. In 2004 and 2008 the Democratic Party didn’t bother running a candidate against him. All this even though Paul eschews such fail-safe political gambits as co-sponsoring (or even voting for) spending bills that benefit his constituents and makes a point of directly challenging such modern Republican notions as an ever-expanding warfare state—all while representing what he characterizes as a Bible Belt conservative stronghold.
Paul’s newsmaking 2008 presidential run emphasized a noninterventionist foreign policy that made him anathema to the rest of his party. But those views helped inspire a ragtag, young, and surprisingly large political movement that shows few signs of dissipating three years later. Animated by this unlikely coalition, Paul’s career-long crusade to shed light on, rein in, and ultimately destroy the Federal Reserve became a mass populist cause. Provisions of his perennial “audit the Fed” bill were incorporated into a bill the House passed in 2009 (although it did not become law). To the surprise of many, after Republicans retook the House of Representatives in November 2010, he became chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy, which oversees the Federal Reserve.
As I write, the man who earned the fourth-highest delegate count in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries seems to be preparing for another run in 2012. An official exploratory committee was launched in April, and Paul was on stage making his pitch at the first Republican presidential primary debate in South Carolina in early May 2011. His public profile and continued relevance were buoyed in 2010 when his son and (for the most part) ideological heir, Rand Paul, became the gadfly superstar of the anti-government side of the Tea Party movement by winning election as a U.S. senator from Kentucky.
In conventional political terms, Ron Paul has not done much to exploit his considerable fan base and reputational juice. He has a political action committee (LibertyPAC), which in a show of strength pulled off a $700,000 one-day fundraising “money bomb” in February for no particular reason. But befitting his very exacting political philosophy, Paul is a reticent endorser. In the 2010 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) figures gathered at OpenSecrets.org, LibertyPAC gave just $17,220 to eight federal candidates. (Year-end papers filed with the FEC for 2010 also show LibertyPAC giving to a handful of state candidates, most in the early-caucus state of Iowa.)
Since Paul first threw his hat in the GOP ring he has published three books. The first, The Revolution: A Manifesto, hit No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in May 2008. A slim but thorough map of Paul’s political beliefs, The Revolution is suffused with that particularly Paulian mix of the frightening and the hopeful. Government has lost its way, the book argues, on everything from foreign policy to entitlements. Any way out of the mess is likely to wend through dark moments of economic and civil crisis. America can only be saved if enough good citizens get the message, understand the precipice to which reckless and unconstitutional fiscal and foreign policy have brought us, and demand that politicians hew to the proper path.
Paul’s second post-campaign book, End the Fed, debuted in the Times top 10 in 2009. It is what it sounds like, explaining why giving a gang of unaccountable, secretive bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve the power to manipulate interest rates and the money supply is unconstitutional, inflationary, and responsible for both a murderously expansionist foreign policy and an economic crash.
Paul’s newest book, Liberty Defined, issued at the dawn of what is looking like another presidential run, makes no mention of White House campaigns, past or future, except in its jacket bio. It’s an “A to Z” exercise, a collection of 50 short essays on policy and philosophical issues arranged alphabetically. It is mercifully not titled thusly, or else we’d be talking about “50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom, From Abortion to Zionism.”
Those two bookends are among Paul’s more controversial stances, even among many of his admirers, and thus worth discussing. Paul believes abortion is murder and as such a matter for states and localities to regulate. Paul would strip federal courts of jurisdiction over the question. He does not object to the morning-after pill, which undercuts his argument that it’s impossible to draw a line on where life begins once sperm meets egg.
As for Zionism: While the movement has produced cultural gains for Jews, Paul argues, it also has sparked a wave of unjust land grabbing based on dubious historical precedent. Washington would do well for itself and its friends in Jerusalem by ceasing aid to Israel and everyone else in the Middle East.
Liberty Defined underscores one of the enduring peculiarities of Ron Paul. On one hand he is a Republican, an Air Force veteran, a family man, a culturally old-fashioned grandfather type. Prior to 2008, he was identified with the populist right wing of the larger libertarian coalition. When he ran for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1988, Paul was the man of the right against the culturally and politically left-leaning Indian activist Russell Means, who fought the feds at Wounded Knee.
On the other hand, the Ron Paul of Liberty Defined seems in many ways designed to antagonize the standard right wing while emphasizing areas of affinity with the progressive left. This is not some centrist “liberaltarian” project of selling liberty to pundits and intellectuals of the Democratic mainstream. Ever the rebel, Ron Paul sounds more like a “left-libertarian,” reaching out to the far reaches of the progressive left and the downtrodden to challenge concentrations of statist power.
Paul consistently criticizes the welfare and corporatist state as privileging the privileged instead of helping the poor. He never talks like his own party is better than the other. When he attacks Barack Obama—which is not that often—it is almost always in the context of pointing out that the president is just as bad as George W. Bush on questions of civil liberties or foreign policy. When criticizing restrictions on commercial speech, he uses the Utne Reader–friendly example of nutritional supplements. When talking health care, he gives a shout-out to homeopathy.
These progressive-friendly trappings extend to issues of deadly force. In Liberty Defined, Paul admits to one of the very few policy changes of his political career: He is now against the federal death penalty, citing its disproportionate effect on the poor. He attacks the drug war on similar grounds. He adores civil disobedience, praising Martin Luther King for his peaceful fight against “state-enforced segregation,” even while objecting to King’s leftist economics.