Ron Paul Explores the 2012 Presidential Race

An interview with the libertarian congressman on the cusp of another GOP presidential run


It has been a good week for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas.) His announcement of an official presidential campaign exploratory committee has gotten a great deal of attention, and despite how outlandish most media find Paul's close hewing to libertarian constitutionalist views, it has not all been dismissive. His new book Liberty Defined will be debuting at #3 on The New York Times bestseller list this weekend as well. Reason Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Paul by phone yesterday.

Reason: Is there anything about the political landscape since your 2008 run that makes you more confident you'll do better in 2012?

Ron Paul: The one thing I've already noticed is the numbers of people supporting these views [of mine] have grown by leaps and bounds. When I visit college campuses the crowds are getting bigger and more enthusiastic. What's also great is that other politicians are using lots of our language, though they still wouldn't address subjects in the exact same manner. But you now hear others talking about printing press money; more people are now wondering why we are still in those wars overseas, now up to 70 percent want us home from Afghanistan.

The economy is a much bigger issue now than when I started [my 2008 run] in 2007. When we started talking about the economy and the housing bubble people didn't believe it at first, but now everyone believes it was a problem. Unemployment is a bigger problem. And probably the most significant change [that's a positive for me] is the Federal Reserve is not getting a free ride anymore. This very day it's holding its first press conference, which is symbolic of them in a defensive mode rather than in the secretive mode they've always been in.

Reason: I saw you on The View the other day, and it was interesting seeing them concerned with the question of how basic human misery will be dealt with in a more libertarian world. How do you expect to handle that issue as a candidate this time?

Paul: Government makes misery! The problem is, you can't really answer that question in one minute. You have to look at history: The more socialized a country, the less the people have, the smaller the middle class, and the more discrepancy between people and the elite. Even in third world poor countries there are some rich people; even in a communist system some thrive while others suffer.

Even on The View when that came up they didn't want to contest me that things are difficult now and we don't know if we can pay for everyone's medical care in five years. But everyone wants to just think about right now and that's more difficult [to debate]. The biggest challenge for conservatives and libertarians is to convince people who think being libertarian means you have no compassion, and in politics you better have compassion. We need to show that if you really want to help people, give them free markets! We agreed on The View, and afterwards we had a discussion, that you can reach the left through the idea of corporatism. I mean, the idea that you can blame free markets for bad medical care is ridiculous—there are so many areas of government interference with licensing and drug and insurance companies…our position is reasonable but you can't explain it in a quick soundbite.

Reason: Elements in your new book Liberty Defined, which I'll be reviewing in the July issue of Reason, struck me as possibly deliberately intended to appeal to a left audience—peace, civil liberties, anti-corporatism, pro-some progressive concerns like nutritional supplements and homeopathy. Was an appeal to the left conscious, something you were thinking of in terms of how to succeed in 2012 as a candidate?

Paul: Well, it couldn't be deliberate, because if I was thinking about how to deliberately aim that book to help me run for president, I'd have to write a book that would have to appeal to the right and have to appeal to Republican primary voters. But it was written not for that reason, but just written because I believe in what I wrote! It's just the way I've presented my political ideas all along.

But I know it's a coalition of people that will bring about change, it can't just be Republican or Democrats. With progressives, I had Ralph Nader join me on going after the Federal Reserve, which delighted me. I use the word "corporatism" [to explain the alliance between big government and big business]. I believe no matter which group you talk to, sophisticated or the general population that might not know much [about the issues] you have the same story. Eventually you win by being consistent.

Reason: You've publicly criticized the Paul Ryan budget plan, which for its flaws is the best sign of semi-serious thinking on budget specifics so far from your own party. As a candidate, do you think you need to present such a detailed and specific plan on how to cut spending and the deficit?

Paul: I probably won't [issue a detailed budget plan]. I plan to change people's attitudes about foreign policy and ideas about entitlements and ideas about monetary policy. Also, although the criticisms have been made public with Paul's budget, I've never volunteered it. I don't write press releases blasting it. I was just asked and told the truth, that I don't think it will do much good, but I'd as soon not even talk about [specific budget plans] and just talk positively about my theories on government.

My big point talking about Bernanke and the Federal Reserve is if we didn't have the Fed buying debt then interest rates would go up and Congress would quit taking money out of the economy and slow down spending, it would become a self-regulating force. If the Fed enhances the appetite and ability for politicians to spend, then [without it] we'd have to be much tighter with our budget and entitlements.

Reason: What do you think of Gary Johnson's announcing his candidacy? Is it good for your cause to have another candidate with very similar ideas in the race?

Paul: The other side has dominated for years. Everyone represented their views as modified Keynesianism, and they don't present an alternative on foreign policy. But the Republican Party had a history where we had less interventionist foreign policy and sound money and personal liberties [were valued], so having two, three, or four candidates who believe in them is good.

My goal in life is getting those ideas out, not even having it be a partisan thing. Like Nixon when he said we are all Keynesians now—Keynesian ideas infiltrated the Republicans and the Democrats so if we want to change the country and change our economy it's not going to be by the Republicans alone or a few politicians in Washington. We have to change the ideas of many who teach economics, who write, who make movies, all the people who contribute to serious thinking. Then politicians will flow along. This is a grand opening because the Keynesian model has run its full course. We are seeing the collapse of that system which has been going on for a good many years. Like the communist system, it has failed. And they had to pull back and we are in that process now. People are not willing to admit we have to pull back on empire and do something about the commitments made on entitlements.

Reason: Do you think the full dollar crisis breakdown you foresee is likely to happen before the government straightens out and does a severe policy change? And do you think that kind of economic apocalyptic message will be a hard sell as a presidential candidate now?

Paul: I work on that assumption that [a worse dollar crisis] is probably what is going to happen. I also work on the possibility that if we do the right thing, changes can be made. When the British rejected mercantilism and repealed the Corn Laws, it was a big change but significant positive things happened and there was no breakdown of law and order. So we can do it. I work on the assumption that it's probably not going to happen [before a crisis hits]. I think it's more likely we'll bring the troops home when people realize we can't afford it then when people start listening to my speeches.

But during the campaign, I'll say what I've been saying, that things will get very dangerous [with the economy] and yet the proper ideas are available to us. To me the most interesting thing and amazing thing is when I talk to young people I describe how terrible the situation is, but most of them come out very optimistic. Even though I dwell on problems I always leave them with the idea that it doesn't have to be this way, even though it may get worse; that it's up to you [as the American people] to decide, do you want to be policeman of the world, do you want to continue this militarism and corporatism, all the problems?

If you don't all you have to do is look to the Constitution for guidance. It doesn't give direct authority to do all these things. At least the answer is out there, we can work on spreading the good ideas. I think we may see a major crisis but I think with the growth of the freedom movement going on and how it has become a pervasive thing [there's hope].

Reason: Any other specific people on the political scene give you that kind of hope?

Paul: There is one in the Senate who I know is attuned to what we're talking about. [laughs] Also, Mike Lee [from Utah] is one of those as well. In the House Justin Amash [from Michigan] is principled and dedicated to doing the right thing and making arguments for free markets.

Reason: Some media implied that your son, Sen. Rand Paul, might run for president instead of you. Was that something you two seriously discussed?

Paul: I think the media pumped that up. He and I never even had a conversation about it, it was not high on the agenda but the media liked it. Even yesterday at the press conference it came up, and again this morning on one of the business shows, whether he would maybe run as vice president. I guess it's entertainment for people, some way to finish an interview on a light note. But we never had a serious discussion about it.

Reason: Last time, your noninterventionist foreign policy was the hardest sell to the GOP primary constituency, I think. Do you think that can be overcome this time?

Paul: The continued failure of our foreign policy is pushing lots of people in our direction. But yes, the right-wing Republican primary voter might be the toughest group on that. We get the greatest number of supporters from military people, retirees and people still in the military, and that's heartening to know. I think attitudes are changing and so I think the vets will help me stick to the message that we've been there [in the Middle East] a long time [and it's not working].

Another big thing that will help now is it's not George Bush's war. Now it's Obama's war. Even though there have been some Republican leaders saying we need to do more in Libya or we didn't act fast enough, other Republicans are now all of a sudden noticing that we did that without congressional approval and no declaration of war. And that will help in the primaries. The last go-round people were sensitive to the idea that party comes first rather than principle and no one liked it if you criticized their party.

Reason: Are there things that have to happen now that you've launched the exploratory committee in order to make a full run for president?

Paul: There are a couple of things we'll be watching. The potential for raising money is important, and my belief is it's going to be there. I've been to quite a few universities, I'll be up in Reno at the University of Nevada tomorrow, [and the reception at] all those events have influence. But I really wasn't going to do much campaigning until I made a final decision but because of the debate [in South Carolina] coming up [on May 5] there was a technical requirement that I had to at least have applied for an exploratory committee.

So I complied with that although I'm not ready for a final decision. An exploratory committee means more bookkeeping, if you collect money people who donate there if they go to the legal maximum that counts against other committees [as the election goes on]. You have to transfer records over [to a later official committee].

But I do want to be in that debate. It would help if there was less booing. That might influence my decision [to really run or not].

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute).