Paul for President?

The maverick libertarian Republican talks on war, immigration, and presidential ambition.


Excitement spread like wildfire last week across the libertarian web: Ron Paul has entered the presidential race! Even the mainstream press took notice. As we'll see in the interview with Rep. Paul (R-Texas) below, the excitement may have been premature.

The reason for the excitement is understandable: Ron Paul has been the most consistent successful politician advocating the limited-government principles that he sees embedded in the Constitution. Part of his appeal, to a voting base that we can safely presume isn't as libertarian as Paul is himself, is that of the very rare politician following his own conscience and mind with steadfast integrity. Indeed, Paul is not afraid of aggravating even parts of his libertarian constituency when he thinks it's the right thing to do, as on immigration (where he's against amnesty and birthright citizenship, and for increased border control) and his vote this month in favor of prescription drug negotiation.

I first wrote at length about Paul in a 1999 American Spectator profile. Its discussion of Paul's nature and appeal is worth revisiting, even with some old details. Just remember, he's continued to win his reelection since 1999. In 2004, the Democrats didn't even bother running anyone against him. And in 2006 he won with 60 percent of the vote.

Though his name rarely appears in the national press, his face almost never on Sunday morning news shows, in 1996 he was third only to Gingrich and Bob Dornan in individual contributions to Republican House members. Though he hasn't managed to get any of his own bills out of committee since re-entering the House in January 1997, he's considered a vital asset by a large national constituency of libertarians, goldbugs, and constitutionalists. He's defied one of the holy shibboleths of electoral politics—Thou Must Bring Home the Bacon—by being a consistent opponent of agricultural subsidies in a largely agricultural district…..

Ron Paul has been defying standard political rules since he first won an off-term House election in 1976--a post-Watergate year when new Republicans weren't widely embraced. He lost the regular election in '76, but came back to win in '78, '80, and '82, then left the House for an ill-fated go at the Senate seat won by Phil Gramm.

….He ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988. He was a hero to a national constituency of hard-core skeptics about the State—the one successful politician who was always steadfast even on the less-popular aspects of the live-free-or-die libertarian philosophy. He'd talk about ending the federal drug war when speaking to high school students. In 1985, he spent his own money to fly and testify on behalf of one of the first draft-registration defiers to go to trial, not blanching when confronted with the hot-blooded youngster's use of the phrase "Smash the State." He might not use that verb, the sober obstetrician, Air Force veteran, and family man said, but from his first-hand experience with how the U.S. government disrespects its citizens' natural liberties, he could understand the sentiments.

I talked to Paul Thursday afternoon by phone about presidential and congressional politics. Here is an edited transcript of our talk.

Reason: Does launching an official exploratory committee necessarily mean you will end up launching an official campaign?

Ron Paul: Last week it leaked that we were getting ready to organize an exploratory committee—I haven't even officially announced that yet. If I find with the exploratory committee that there is some support out there, that we can raise the money you need, then [I'd] declare that [I'm] running.

Reason: Now that it has leaked, what have you thought of the response so far?

Paul: I think it's been impressive. I've been pleased and surprised.

Reason: Who are some of the staff and supporters behind the committee?

Paul: I'm not going into any of that now--we haven't even officially made the announcement! It was leaked info and I'm still in the process of organizing a team. [In an AP story, Kent Snyder is identified as chairman for the exploratory committee.]

Reason: What would you anticipate the major issues you'd emphasize in a presidential run, if it comes to that?

Paul: Everything I've talked about for 20 years! I think the biggest thing for Republican primary voters is that most Republicans are turned off right now. They've had a beating and are reassessing their values. They have to decide what they believe in. The Republican Party has become about big government conservatism, and Republicans need to hear the message they used to hear: that conservatives are supposed to be for small government.

Reason: You appeared at a bipartisan press conference today on a resolution regarding possible war in Iran….

Paul: Walter Jones (R-N.C.) has a resolution he's introducing, sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans, saying that the president can't go into Iran and spread this war without permission of Congress. I don't know the total number of supporters, but we had a real nice bipartisan group, seven or eight members of Congress, split between Republicans and Democrats. I thought it went well. [The resolution has 12 co-sponsors.]

I think the feeling [on the Hill] is getting more against the war every day. Republicans have generally benefited from being on the other side of war issues, and lately we've been pressured into supporting pre-emptive war, and it has hurt us politically. The Old Right position was [antiwar] and through the 20th century conservatives in the Republican Party have generally been trying to keep us out of war, and we've generally benefited by this. Eisenhower was elected to end the Korean War. Nixon was supposed to end the Vietnam War and in 2000 Bush ran on a policy of "no nation building" and not being the policeman of the world. He criticized Clinton on Somalia. It's a strong tradition for Republicans to be on the side of avoiding military conflicts. Democrats have generally been the international instigators.

Reason: One of the Internet rumors is linking you with Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Col.) in a possible joint run…

Paul: Tancredo? No. We've never talked about anything like that.

Reason: And another rumor is that the GOP run could be a lead-in to some sort of third party run…

Paul: A third party run? No.

Reason: Have you noticed any differences about being in the minority party in Congress again? Will that affect you?

Paul: Well, the Republican Party leaders are acting in a very defensive manner--which they've earned! It probably doesn't change what I do very much. I'm just as likely to get Democratic support in things I want to do as from Republicans. Republicans were too determined to support the president rather than thinking things through and standing up to his requests to expand government internationally or to expand entitlement program at home. They've just gone along here.

Reason: Do you think the losing Congress will liberate more Republicans to revolt against the administration?

Paul: That's the other Republican politicians' dilemma: They don't want to annoy some Republican voters, but at the same time realize that it's not very popular to have to defend the war. When you see someone like Brownback [R-Kan.] scurrying away from the war….there's a big change in attitude [in the GOP] and Republicans are starting to remember where they came from and that they don't have to be supporters of war. I think a year from now there will be a lot more Republican antiwar people around.

Reason: Do you expect the Democrats to do anything substantive to stop the war?

Paul: I think we'll see more rhetoric than a real desire to do [something specific]. We'll see hiding behind just saying that "we don't like this, Bush made a mess, but we can't cut the money because then we won't be supporting the troops." I think that's a cop out. There's plenty of money to take care of the troops, billions of dollars in piles.

Reason: What did you think of Sen. Joe Biden's declaration that there's really nothing Congress can do to stop the war?

Paul: I think Biden is absolutely wrong. The Constitution gives more responsibility to Congress in dealing with foreign policy than to the executive. The only thing the president can do is be commander in chief after being given directions to pursue. If we had followed the rules he wouldn't have been able to do a thing, with no declaration of war. How can the commander in chief fight a war that hasn't been declared? If Congress had not been so complacent in its responsibilities….The war in Vietnam finally ended by definancing, but tragically after 60,000 Americans died. Congress has lots of responsibility, for defining policy, raising an army, buying equipment, the whole works. For Biden to say that–that's avoiding the responsibility of doing what we can do.

Reason: Have you had much interaction with the larger active antiwar movement from the left?

Paul: Not really. I have a lot of people who correspond with me who come from the left, but I don't go to their events since there's so often more on their plate than just the war. They have an agenda I don't endorse. I'm interested in reviving that spirit that says conservatives and limited-government constitutionalists can support the antiwar position, can be comfortable without aggressive foreign policy.

Reason: What do you have to say to libertarians who disagree with your immigration position, such as on amnesty, birthright citizenship, and a concentration of federal money on border security?

Paul: If they don't agree, they'd have to be anarchists, and I'm not. I believe in national borders and national security. My position is, take away incentives--why are states compelled to give free education and medical care? I don't endorse easy automatic citizenship for people who break the law. They shouldn't be able to come reap the benefits of welfare state. I don't think libertarians can endorse that. I think removing the incentives is very important, but I don't think you can solve the immigration problem until you deal with the welfare state and the need for labor created by a government that interferes with the market economy. We're short of labor at the same time lots of people are paid not to work. Take away [illegal immigrants'] incentives. I do believe in a responsibility to protect our borders, rather than worrying about the border between North and South Korea or Iraq and Syria, and I think that's a reasonable position.

Reason: Some of your libertarian fans were also upset about your vote on government price negotiations for Medicare drugs….

Paul: The government is already involved in giving out prescription drugs, in a program that the drug companies love and spend hundreds of millions lobbying for, this interventionist program. The drug corporations love it. Should government say something about controlling prices since it's a government program? I want to cut down spending, so why not say that government has a responsibility to get a better bargain? Both choices were horrible, but the person who complained on the Internet did not understand the vote. I don't vote for price controls, obviously, but if government has to buy something—even if they shouldn't be buying it!--they have a responsibility to get the best price. But most importantly, we shouldn't be in that business [of buying drugs].

Reason: When can we expect an official announcement about your presidential plans?

Paul: It's going to be several weeks. We want to get our ducks lined up, be better prepared to line up committees and all the things we didn't get together before the information about [the exploratory committee] was leaked. I was impressed with how quick it leaked, and the reaction, O man!

Reason: Any reaction from your congressional colleagues or Republican Party types?

Paul: Not a whole lot. I didn't expect them to say too much. I mean, they mention it—it's not like they refuse to talk about it—but it's not the hottest subject around. It's much hotter on the Internet.

It will have to be a grassroots campaign and rely on the internet. If we don't learn how to use that to its maximum benefit, we won't have a very viable campaign. We'll be able to raise significant amounts, but obviously we're not getting money from corporate giants and we're not apt to raise $100 million. Money is pretty important, but it's not the final issue. There are other ways of running, more so today than ever before, new ways of reaching people in an economical manner. Obvious you have to get a certain [minimum amount] of money, but right now I have no idea of the number.