Ron Paul: Could He Win in San Francisco?


A long profile of Ron Paul in The Atlantic gives some evidence for Esquire's declaration that "It's impossible to dislike Ron Paul."

As an advocate of libertarianism in the public sphere for over two decades, I know full well most Americans get really annoyed by its consistent application. But something about Ron Paul seems to trigger some recognition in even journalists that this is a guy with a serious, well-intentioned, and possibly vitally important message.

Some excerpts and comments:

"I'm so confident in my philosophy that I think I could run a pretty good race in San Francisco," he told me in his Washington office recently. "What I'd talk about there wouldn't be so much about deficit spending as about personal liberties, military engagement overseas, and the financial crisis. That used to help more in conservative districts. But everybody's worried about it now."….

Paul is also a loner because his ambitions lie mostly beyond Washington. He wants to inspire a national movement, but from the outside. Demonstrating purity of conviction is more conducive to that goal than acceding to ordinary political compromises. Paul's presidential campaign drew a large grassroots following, even while he was being dismissed as a kook, and it made better use of the Internet than any campaign besides Obama's. Like Obama, Paul inspires people of widely varying beliefs to see him as the vessel of their desires. His opposition to the Iraq War, strident criticism of the Federal Reserve, and early warnings of financial collapse, which he derived from the theories of semi-obscure Austrian economists, brought all sorts of people into the fold.

But it's what has happened since the election that has carried Paul from the fringe of American politics toward the center—or, really, carried the center toward him. Two years of economic trauma have fed a nationwide resentment. The clearest sign of this is the loose affiliation of angry conservatives, disaffected independents, Glenn Beck disciples, strict constitutionalists, and assorted malcontents who gather under the Tea Party banner. This heterodox mass distrusts the political establishment and believes the federal government has grown dangerously large. Some believe that it has usurped powers rightfully reserved for the states, rendering many of its actions illegitimate (the Constitution is the sacred Tea Party text). Above all, Tea Party followers share a profound objection to unchecked spending and expanding credit, as successive administrations and the Federal Reserve have done to the tune of trillions of dollars. This effort to stimulate the economy, they believe, has not only failed to end the recession but made it worse.

To address these grievances, Paul was ready and waiting. He is not the Tea Party's founder (there isn't one), or its culturally resonant figure (that's Sarah Palin), but something more like its brain, its Marx or Madison. He has become its intellectual godfather….The Tea Party has overrun the Republican Party everywhere from Alaska to Kentucky to Maine, and a version of Paul's bill to audit the Federal Reserve just passed the Senate unanimously en route to becoming law. Today, on matters of economic politics, Paul is at least as significant as any of the Republicans he shared the stage with in the 2007 South Carolina debate. And has anyone noticed that he's a fixture on Fox News?…

In February, Paul startled the Republican establishment by handily winning the presidential straw poll at the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a big event for party insiders. As the Republican Party swings into line behind him, it has upended the consensus that has prevailed around fiscal and monetary policy since the Great Depression, pressuring the Fed and blocking any additional stimulus. With the Tea Party gathering force, Paul is at last where he has always wanted to be: in the vanguard of a national movement.

I think author Joshua Green is highly overestimating the actual influence of Paul, or willingness to act, if and when in actual power again, in Paulian manner, of the mainstream GOP. That said, I've underestimated the power of the resurgent Ron Paul phenomenon a bit since he first announced his presidential run in January 2007 (when I was, I'm pretty sure, the first national journalist to interview him about it).

Paul is a prolific introducer of bills, usually ones that don't go anywhere. But a few have been prescient. Before the positions were widely popular, he advocated setting term limits and abolishing the income tax. Less popular ideas have included eliminating most federal agencies, ending government funding of education, repealing federal laws against drugs and prostitution (he favors state laws), and cutting military spending.

Ron sometimes pulls the "not federal issue but state issue" thing on drugs when he doesn't want to fight to the death at that moment on libertarian root issues, but the man who told the Conservative Political Action Conference the following earlier this year deserves better drug war cred than Green gives him:

But I do not believe freedom can survive and I do not believe we as conservatives can contribute much if we still think freedom only comes in pieces: that you can protect economic liberty but not personal liberty. Sure, I imagine everybody in this crowd would say, "Yes, protect our right of free speech. Protect our right to our religious values." But as soon as it comes to putting something in your mouth or in your lungs, you say, "You don't have enough sense to decide what you should do, so we are going to use the heavy hand of government, come down and protect you against yourself".

Back to Green:

Paul's independent streak put him at odds with a Republican leadership that ran Congress like a Tammany Hall machine and punished anyone who strayed. Paul strayed habitually. In 2003, his seniority put him in line to chair the subcommittee that oversees the Federal Reserve. To deny him, Republican leaders merged two committees. In 2005, he was again set to assume the top spot. With another merger impossible, a senior colleague was pressured onto the subcommittee so that she, and not Paul, would take the gavel.

"They look at him as a problem," says Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Financial Services Committee and co-sponsored bills with Paul legalizing marijuana and Internet gambling. "Ron said to me in 2005, 'I guess I'll have to wait for you to be chairman, because we never get anywhere around here.'"

I'm cherry picking the good parts. Green does feel it necessary to say he finds Paul sounding "unhinged" when discussing economics–serious feature writers about politics for major national magazines never say things like that about politicians with actual serious national power or prestige (see any number of bipartisan profile rim jobs of "major political players" in mags like Esquire, GQ, and yes, The Atlantic).

The notorious racist bits in his old newsletters get mentioned, but as a parenthetical aside. Green's discussion of Paul's role in a rally in his district at the start that mostly features people annoyed that government isn't doing more for them shows he doesn't really get what Paul is really selling (or that Paul's constituents don't, which actually seems like a rich possibility but not one Green explores). Green repeats the standard story that Keynesians, not Paul's beloved Misesians, are right about the causes and cures of economic downturns.

Still, Green comes to a conclusion that I only hope is accurate in its implied expectations:

Paul says he hasn't decided whether he'll run for president again. But it's hard to believe he won't. He has emerged as a force at the kind of insider events that once ignored him. After winning the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, he came within a single vote of repeating the feat two months later at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. In June, he traveled to Iowa to raise money for local politicians, which is what you do when you're thinking about running for president. He was greeted with PRESIDENT RON PAUL 2012 signs.

It does not seem at all far-fetched to think that Paul could have a much greater impact on the race than last time. The Republican primaries are sure to be about economic and size-of-government issues. The subject that hurt him last time, foreign policy, will probably take a backseat. Paul will not lack for resources, thanks to his legion of online donors. Reagan, the Republican hero, once endorsed him. And the party's energy right now is at the grass roots, which also bodes well for him. If his economic message connects in Iowa and New Hampshire—well, who can say?

My February 2008 Reason magazine cover story on Paul's presidential campaign.