Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) rallied 8,000 or so of his supporters from around the country to Tampa's Sundome the day before the planned official start of the Republican National Convention. After a week in which the Republican Party seemed less eager to welcome Paul supporters and delegates than Paul supporters were eager to help shape the GOP, the event seemed designed to both remind the Paul troops that they have been and are winning important victories within the establishment, and to steel them for a continued fight for respect and influence that was never going to be easy.
Paul advisor Doug Wead, working as MC, kept up a steady stream of references to the Paul delegations' grievances against the RNC insiders. This jabbing at the GOP happened even as the event, whose theme was "We are the Future" debuted a detournement of the grassroots "Ron Paul rEVOLution" stencil logo reading: "Ron Paul RepubliCAN."
This was the divide the event danced around: Are they a full service independent revolution or a faction of the Republican Party? The only solid answer that arose from the rally was: both.
The speakers at the rally were all selected by Paul himself to make a point: that while the movement around him arose in the context of a Republican presidential run, the liberty cause for which he has fought for nearly 40 years is about more than electoral politics or politics at all.
Thus, Paul invited libertarian Austrian economist Walter Block to give an ill-received talk. Block chose to think through the proper libertarian ethical position on abortion (which is, Block figures, "evictionism"—roughly, as I understand it, that it's morally permissible to eject a fetus from the womb if it's unwanted, but you are obligated to try to keep it alive outside your body if possible).
It was the only speech to be (mildly) heckled, I think for confusing people more than for being about a hot-button topic. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his co-author and Paul campaign blogger Jack Hunter, reviled by many in the grassroots for perceived sins of being too quick to assimilate to the Republican Party (see: Rand's early Romney endorsement), got through unscathed. It was overwhelmingly a feel-good crowd.
South Carolina Republican State Senator Tom Davis gave a very angry peroration against the "traitor" Ben Bernanke and called for advance support in his plan to unseat Sen. Lindsay Graham in 2014. While Davis' style was very un-Ron Paul in its intense shouty anger bordering on rage, many attendees told me it was their favorite non-Paul part of the day. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the man considered most likely to be the next Ron Paul in congress when Paul is gone after January, humbly said there will be no next Ron Paul and got laughs by calling out, "Audit the RNC!" Amash advised Paul politicos and activists to learn how to not be at each other's throats when they disagree. He also slyly commented on Davis' tone with a reference to how Davis had "spoken eloquently—and sometimes not so eloquently…."
From the lower levels of grassroots and Party activism, Ashley Ryan, the youngest member of the RNC, from Maine, bragged about the Paul people's victories at the state level and noted that in these internal party votes, tiny numbers of people can and do make the difference. She spoke openly of the Paulites need to "restore the Republican Party" to the values of liberty. Ryan is a living example of the balancing act of being in the Republican Party but not necessarily of it that Paul politicos will have to perform for the foreseeable future.
Marianne Stebbins, who ran Paul's campaign in Minnesota (and succeeded in getting Paul control of the delegation), hooked her speech somewhat ironically around the image of Paul fans as a gang of underground basement-dwelling radical weirdos. She also openly grants that she gets many Paul activists don't want to do electoral politics. This sort of respect for the individual's will, and understanding that politics is awful, is one of the most refreshing parts of the Paul political movement writ large. Stebbins called political power the "one ring" that they want to destroy, "in the fire of the Constitution." She also advised the liberty movement to have no set loyalty to specific politicians, but just to the principles of liberty.
Donna Holt of Campaign for Liberty told the story of the rise of her group from the last big Ron Paul rally counterprogrammed against the GOP in 2008 in Minneapolis. She crowed that they had been more effective in four years (especially on anti-Federal Reserve activism) than many other grassroots political pressure groups ever are. Successful state-level Paul supporters who rose to power in their respective Republican Party's also spoke: Carl Bunce of Nevada (Clark County party chair) and A.J. Spiker of Iowa (state party chair) were living examples of the possible successes for Paul activists.
Rand Paul, in what was technically merely an introduction to his dad (after the traditional introduction of Paul's huge extended family, grandchild 19 about to be born, and many members absent for the perfectly American reason of having important sports games to play this weekend), did a great job of giving this particular crowd what it wanted and needed to hear from him, the presumptive heir to the political movement his dad created and shaped: kill the TSA, audit the Fed and the Pentagon, the Beatitudes do not say "blessed are the warmakers" (maybe Rand can successfully sell pacifism to the Religious Right where his father failed), praising his dad for talking about foreign policy blowback, and repeating Ron's foreign policy admonition: we marched right in to these foreign entanglements, and we can just march out.
Paul's speech was typical Paul; while many were amazed at its 1:17 minute length, Paul often goes over an hour when he can. Nor was its lack of a single unifying theme other than "liberty is good" unusual. Paul joked about the RNC promising him an "anything goes" floor speech—the punchline (which took an awkwardly long time to get to) was: "tomorrow night" (the night the convention would be postponed because of hurricane threats.) He believes liberty ideas have a huge constituency outside the Republican Party's primary voters. He continued to be both apocalyptic and hopeful, and unrepentant about the foreign policy positions that he knows alienate so many Republicans. So they say if we listened to Ron Paul, Osama bin Laden would still be alive? (Though Paul was the guy talking up targeted efforts on specific criminals over wars.) Well, if they listened to Ron Paul, the thousands who died on 9/11 would still be alive too, Paul said.
Paul kept being Paul, the man equally against financial regulations and drug laws, the man steadfastly opposed to income redistribution who stresses that existing corporate capitalism redistributes money upward to the rich and well-connected. He's for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning (as is the crowd) and continued a trend I've noted in his speeches as the campaign wound down: pushing a thick philosophical conception of liberty as the key to life well lived, of virtue and excellence as the things that make a human life entire and only possible with liberty. He was more explicitly Ayn Randian than usual, noting that the so-called sacrifices of his public career were in fact in his own self-interest: he did it because he enjoyed it and thought it was worth doing, and also in a Randian vein noted that true self-esteem only comes from production.
His speech had some bits that felt valedictory or torch-passing; but if in the end it felt anti-climactic, and I think it did, that's because for Paul and most of his fans this was not a climax at all. It was merely one more step in a long, long march through the institutions of the Republican Party and American politics and culture to make them more amenable to the ideas of liberty.
Despite all the talk of "Ron Paul's last hurrah," it was really just one more Ron Paul rally. And most of the people there are going to continue to follow the spirit that led them to get themselves to Tampa in the face of hurricane threats and keep on pushing the ideas, whether it be by (all specific examples from attendees I spoke to) driving around the country with liberty messages on signs, running for public office, running for internal Republican Party office, protesting the TSA by going through scanners in a bikini, leading campaigns to read and compare and contrast liberty classics with socialist ones, studying and teaching Austrian economics, or campaigning for Gary Johnson.
Even after the rally, long after the voting, the corners at the major intersections surrounding the University of South Florida had squads of Ron Paul for President 2012 sign wavers; for some, the Paul campaign is eternal.