Mr. Conservative 2.0


Last night Rep. Ron Paul made a wistful kind of trip to the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia for a speech to the Robert Taft Club, a paleoconservative salon launched in 2006. Planning began long before news broke of Paul's $5.1 million summer fundraising haul. That news turned a small event into a monster lecture, around 300 people lining up and around stairs to get into a small, oak-panelled room at a chop house. Journalists from ABC News and C-Span set up cameras as print journalists milled around.

Paul arrived a bit after 8 p.m., agog at the crowd. "I asked how many people belonged to this club," he said, "and they said 'oh, about 35 people.' I'm used to speaking for… little groups of 35 people," he said.

I saw Paul speak to a smaller, younger crowd of conservatives at CPAC six months back and his speaking style's changed since then, if only slightly. He still wanted to barrel through a 30-minute address but was ready to pause and soak it in when people cheered at statements like "We need to go back to Revolutionary times and pick up the pieces!" Paul had a campaign to brag about, and re-enacted the moment from a Michigan rally (of 2000 people on the State campus) when he started talking abut fiat money and "some people started burning Federal Reserve notes!" He reared back his head and laughed. "Sometimes people will hand me a Fed note to sign and I ask them: 'Is this going to increase the value or is it going to drive it down?'"

The foreign policy bits of the speech were a little bit altered from Paul's usual spiel. There was the usual calling out of Republicans and Democrats who voted for the Iraq War (and to give the president authority to declare it), but when he worried that point he added a piss-and-vinegar disclaimer: "You declare war if you have to, and then you get in there and win it and then get out" It got applause, but Paul seemed a little startled at what he'd just said. And he spitballed what he would do if Congress obliterated the military budget and started scrapping overseas bases. He'd take $200 billion from the military budget, apply $100 billion to deficit payment, and apply $100 billion to paying for entitlements and infrastructure. That was unusual: Most of the time, when a practicality came up, it was the star of a joke.

"We're not going to get rid of the Federal Reserve in a day," Paul said. "It'll take two or three days."

Listening to this and looking at the camera and sound men staring intently as they record it, I realized that the days of Paul giving low-key philosophical speeches are over for a while. TV reporters don't follow a candidate unless he's making an impact on the race. Crowds this size include voters who honestly think their guy is going to win the nomination. Questions began with "When you become president…" and "What would a Paul presidency…" and fans from South Carolina assured Paul he was surging in their state. One questioner asked Paul to make a general election argument against Hillary Clinton. (I've seen this happen before. In the summer, when John McCain's campaign had really melted down, most of the questions he took from fans and bloggers were about the war. Only after his polls moved up in September did he start getting campaign questions again.)

I'm always curious about what Paul voters expect from this race and what they'll do if he doesn't win. Very, very few of the attendees had a second choice candidate. For them, it's Paul or nothing. "We are not going to win against any Democrat if we nominate a pro-war candidate," said Brandon Holmes, a 27-year old Leadership Institute employee who used to support the war. "Ron Paul's going to be on my ballot in November, whether or not I have to write him in."

Paul didn't seem to want much focus on him, personally, as opposed to libertarian ideas and old-style Bob Taft conservatism. "I am not the greatest orator," he said near the end of a long speech, "but this is the greatest message."

UPDATE: Since it came up in comments, I'll mention that Paul was asked about his ideal running mate. He doesn't have one and isn't thinking about it.