Same rEVOLution, Different Day
Assessing the future of Ron Paul's Campaign for Liberty
On June 12, one year and three months after launching his presidential campaign on an episode of C-SPAN's Washington Journal, Ron Paul took the stage at a late night Texas rally, outside of the state party's convention, and called it quits.
It was greeted, by the media, with a paper-and-pixel yawn. The Houston Chronicle reported that Paul "officially unplugged his dormant Republican presidential campaign" and pointed out that he was late to the speech. "Ron Paul ends his campaign—for real this time," snickered a blogger at The Washington Post.
Paul had an an easy answer to this: Ignore it. "We are miles ahead of anything I ever dreamed of in this movement!" Paul told a cheering crowd. He said, for the umpteenth time, that he'd never even expected this campaign to catch on. He wanted to educate people. "If you're going to have a revolution," he said, "people need to be educated to understand what we're doing and why we're doing it. The rest is all"—he waved his arm as if warding off a malaria-carrying insect—"fluff."
If "the rest" is fluff, it would be a break for Paul. By the traditional measures of a presidential campaign, Paul blew it. He raised $35 million, of which all but $4.7 million was spent by campaign's end. For this he got 1.2 million votes and as few as 35 delegates to the Republican convention. Paul, being honest, had never expected to win. Rarely did he sound as awkward as he did as when George Stephanopolous prodded him to admit that he wouldn't be the nominee. "You'd bet every cent in your pocket?" asked Paul. "Yes," said the ABC anchor. "Oh," said Paul. "OK."
Now that the campaign's over, Paul feels a little more free to tell the truth. "This is actually a racheting up of what were doing before," Paul said in a Thursday phone conversation. "There are more people who believe in the freedom agenda than voted for us in the primaries. I've been saying the same thing since 1974, you know, but something… happened this year. I can't explain what it was, but the young people understand these issues better than anyone thought, and they are not going away."
The "second phase" of the rEVOLution is the Campaign for Liberty, a more explicitly political organization (a 501c3) than many people believed Paul would launch. It is not, as was speculated, a paleolibertarian publishing house. It is not yet, as feared, a donation or employment plan for Paul's friends and family; the only confirmed transfer from Ron Paul 2008 to the Campaign for Liberty is communications director and (as of Sunday) Paul grandson-in-law Jesse Benton. "Together, we will educate our fellow Americans in freedom, sound money, non-interventionism, and free markets," Paul wrote in an inaugural message to supporters. "We will write commentaries and broadcast videos on the news of the day. And I'll work with friends whom I respect to design materials for homeschoolers."
The Campaign, then, is the kind of thing Paul's more strategy-minded die-hards have clamored for since Super Tuesday. That was when it became clear, thanks to the GOP's winner-take-all primary rules and the exits of Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, that Paul could not enough accrue enough delegates to become a convention kingmaker.
"The presidential bid went on a little too long," said Trevor Lyman, the P.R. whiz who pushed and popularized the various moneybombs that netted Paul nearly $12 million. "It gave a lot of people false hope; I'm not talking about me, but about people who honestly thought if Ron stayed in the race he could beat McCain. There was a lot of wasted energy there. Of course, the people in those final primary states got together and got organized, so maybe even that could end up being for the good." The day after we spoke, Lyman joined the Campaign for Liberty blog team.
According to Paul, staying in the race so long was a way to get the base politically activated. "We have something like 22,000 precinct captains now!" Paul said on Thursday. Jesse Benton doubled his exuberance: "If we had 100,000 precinct captains, we could take over the country."
So is it an educational effort? Is a political effort? The tug-of-war between those concepts illustrates the problem Paul's movement encountered all along. His supporters could elucidate the reasons why they loved their candidate better, probably, than any group of supporters in 2008's twisty political history. The education stuck; in some cases, it was hardly needed. It translated only to enough votes to turn Paul into a national figure and rattle Republicans, however briefly, about the fidelity of their libertarian wing. What Paul's supporters proved adept at, in the end, was filling the cobwebbed ballrooms of GOP caucuses and conventions and matching or overwhelming the party regulars to win platform fights and delegates. If the Campaign for Liberty trains people to do that, in between readings of Murray Rothbard, it could terrify Paul's party in the best way.
Or it could fall flat. Occasional reason contributer Jim Henley pointed out in a blog post that, apart from the numbers of supporters and precinct campaigns the Campaign wants to reel in, "all the elements of the 'Mission' of CFL are kept prudently nebulous. That means there never needs to come the awkward time when donors and observers point out that CFL has inarguably failed to meet some goal."
The Campaign is, still, less than Paul's army expected from this campaign when they flooded his coffers. On Thursday, I put the question to the candidate: Were those tens of millions of dollars that went to Ron Paul 2008 put to good use? "I hope so," he said. "They trusted me. We did our very best. And I'd say that in the category of spending, we were the best campaign, as far being the stewards' of peoples' money." Trevor Lyman agreed. "The moneybombs were worth it for the coverage alone," he said. "The Ron Paul Blimp was nearly as good on that count; I've seen serious estimates that it was $2 million in exposure and earned media."
The fundraising numbers and the ambition of the Campaign for Liberty raises another question. In January, Paul took a public relations hit when controversial sections of his old Ron Paul Political Reports were reprinted by The New Republic. Those same passages had dogged Paul in his 1996 congressional comeback. What had Paul learned from the experiences of Ron Paul and Associates that would guide him in his new venture. "I'm only responsible for what I do and what I say," he said. "I've been saying the same thing since 1974, and I've gotten a bit better at it." That was all he'd say on the matter.
The question running through all of this was how intimately Paul would be involved, or wanted to be involved, in the future of his movement. He's striking a difficult balance on this, too. Paul clearly wants to retain the notoriety he's gained as a spokesman for libertarianism. "A lot of those Meet-Up groups have turned into book clubs," he said on Thursday, with a grin I could detect even across two bad cell phone connections. When it comes to raw politics, Paul, rather passively, is hoping his followers don't just cling to his name. He rejected the idea of writing in his name on the November ballot, a concept that's stayed popular with many Paul voters despite the Libertarian Party and Constitution Party's pitches for their votes.
"I don't think that's very productive," Paul said of a write-in campaign. "They could do it, of course, but in most of the states it won't count. If they can change the rules in a primary and not count all the votes, imagine what they could do with write-in votes!"
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.