The Ron Paul grassroots are celebrating their final hurrah, at least during the actual political career of their inspiration, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), at Tampa's Florida fairgrounds this weekend. (Paul will be holding his own farewell rally on Sunday.) Day one of the Paul Festival showed a movement less unified, present, and excited than it wants to be. But most of them are still sure that, whether or not the Republican Party will continue to be the horse they ride, they'll keep up a fight for political liberty that's turning out to be more complicated and difficult than many expected.
The event was thinly attended on day one; my estimate is no more than 800 were present at any one time. The festival occupied two linked huge hanger-like buildings. One was filled with exhibitor booths of appeal to the Paul world—the Free State Project, Ron Paul candy bars and T-shirts, the Independent Institute, the Libertarian Party, and purveyors of hard money and soft beef jerky.
The other one had stage for speakers and musical entertainment. I didn't spend a lot of time with the latter, whose connection with Paulism seemed more personal than ideological, but did sit in on speeches by two different claimants to the specifically political attention of the Paul forces: Libertarian Party national committee chair Geoff Neale, and a mystery "Plan B for liberty" named Robby Wells who was, even today, still hoping to encourage RNC delegates to nominate him if, as was clear, Ron Paul was no longer trying to win it. (Wells' policy statements were a perfectly acceptable batch of Paulite positions, from being for abolishing the Fed to being against abortion.)
That fact—that Ron Paul was no longer trying to win it—was the key to the concern and even sometimes anguish of most of the RNC delegates and alternates for Paul who I met at Paulfest. Some, including Oklahoma alternate delegate Porter Davis, think the campaign was infiltrated from the beginning with non-libertarians intent on making sure the campaign didn't win, or even do very well. Davis and a fellow Oklahoma alternate, Michael Stopp, were full of complaints about the attitude and actions of the campaign's official representatives in their state, and are sure that the Paul political machine were already more interested in setting up a future for Rand Paul than winning it for Ron this time around.
For a half hour I was literally caught between the two dominant visions of what a Paulite politico can or should do moving forward, sitting between two delegates telling their stories.
On one side was Bryan Daugherty, a delegate from Maine, who had just seen what he insists was his state's duly elected Paulite delegation invalidated by the RNC unilaterally. Despite the bravado expressed to me the other day by his fellow delegate Mark Willis, Daugherty was no longer sure he'd even bother to attend the actual RNC on Monday.
He did try to replace a bounced Maine delegate on the Rules Committee, but was barred by committee chair John Sununu. Daugherty was still sporting his Rules Committee laminate in defiance. He was the first to tell me of a new rule, which the Washington Post reported on, that will attempt to lock in a state's straw poll results with its delegate mix in a way that pretty much destroys any chance any future Ron Paul type can succeed with a "delegate strategy."
Daugherty says talk from the Paul campaign made it abundantly clear that they did not want Paul to be nominated on the floor; he recalls a campaign operative assuring them that even if rogue delegates tried to do it, Paul would decline the nomination.
The realization that the Paul campaign–probably as far back as May–gave up on actually wanting a floorfight is seen by some delegates as a sign of either sabotogue, incompetence, or fraud.
Alternately, some see it as an understandable decision about how best to normalize the liberty movement as a loyal faction of the Republican Party once actual victory was seen as impossible. Josiah Tillett, a young Paul alternate delegate from Virginia, tells me in his state that by allying with more standard Tea Party conservatives the Paul faction managed to get plenty of delegate seats, though they are bound to Romney, in exchange for supporting Tea Party-ers for state committee seats. Even a Paulite can horsetrade, and one should not underestimate the importance in Party politics of just being seen as people you can and want to deal with, not a truculent enemy.
"I've been a Republican for 18 years," Daugherty says. "I've been pushing this dilapidated car for a long time, but I'm at odds right now. I sit on my state [Republican Party] committee, I'm on the leadership team of my municipality in Bangor. But do you continue to get smacked around, kicked in the nuts every day? Or try to get the signatures in Maine to start your own party?"
On the other side was Nevada delegate Pat Kerby, who was on the platform committee, and mildly happy with planks about a gold commission and Fed auditing he says are in the draft. He failed to get good things about equal rights in marriage or raw milk into it. Kerby too is frustrated with the Party power structure, but doesn't want Paul people who have tried to rise within the GOP to give up.
"We've done so much, come so far," Kerby says. "Back in 2008, we made a lot of progress in Nevada and then we had to start over" because too many people gave up. "We've got to hold our positions" within the Republican Party.
In the evening the action retreated to a campsite on the other side of the hugely sprawling fairground property. The campsite, somewhat ironically, is adjacent to a county-wide law enforcement parking lot. Thus for hours of the night and morning constant caravans of a hundred or more police cars were circling the campgrounds. (In an earlier friendly encounter with an un-uniformed officer in an unmarked car, he made a point of saying to what he knew was a Ron Paul fan after our interaction: "There, wasn't I helpful?") As I was writing this Saturday morning, one of them announced drily over his loudspeaker to the awakening Paul rabble in the field: "Have a lovely day."
Vrezh Zatikyan, an activist who works with the grassroots Liberty HQ out of Los Angles, was walking around the campground in the middle of the night looking for someone to drive him and a partner to a nearby 24 hour Kinko's so they could print thousands of copies of an appeal to all the RNC delegates to reconsider their choice of Mitt Romney and nominate a true constitutionalist defender of American liberties who might have a chance of beating Obama: Ron Paul.
Zatikyan was not discouraged. The current system is one of great power and great evil; Paul fans should not have expected that they could just march in with their delegates and expect the Party to politely roll over and allow him to be nominated. But regardless, Zatikyan insisted, what are they going to do? Give up? For him, and everyone who troubled themselves to get to this hot August day in Tampa, that wasn't an option.