The Ron Paul Legacy

The libertarian Texas congressman has retired. Will his radical ideas stick around on Capitol Hill?


Ron Paul is officially no longer a congressman. Gone from the Washington scene is his tendency to cast lone votes, his unique willingness to point out that government is inherently based on violence. Paul will continue to be a public spokesman for liberty—about the only part of his job as congressman he liked anyway. 

He leaves behind a contested legacy. As Paul's detractors will tediously point out, being one of 435 in Congress with views vastly different from your colleagues' means you will neither pass many laws, nor prevent many laws from being passed, nor shape the ethos of the House. Paul did, though, succeed in shifting "Audit the Fed" from an issue no one knew or cared about to a bill that has passed the House twice.

Through his Republican presidential runs in 2008 and 2012, he conjured a large and dedicated army of libertarian activists and politicos where one hadn't existed before, though we don't know how many of the 2.1 million people who voted for him in GOP primaries in 2012 are as hardcore libertarian as Paul. Two thriving organizations, Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, arose from those campaigns and survive his congressional career.

But can lasting change within our sclerotic political system arise from a movement as insurrectionist and outside the mainstream as Paul's? And will he have any heirs to keep what he started rolling? A vote total of 2.1 million is a surprisingly impressive number, to be sure, especially for such a harsh critic of empire, drug wars, and fiat money. But it still represents a decidedly losing portion of what was, nationally in 2012, a losing party.

What the Paul revolutionaries are trying to do, they insist, has been done before. They are trying to use a rowdy, young-skewing throng to force a major party to embrace ideas that seem fanatical to existing party hierarchies. Remember the Barry Goldwater kids in 1960, uniting fervently behind a strongly anti-government author of a best-selling book of popular political philosophy, freaking out the party powers with their youth and outsider enthusiasm? It's impossible to read a history of the Goldwater movement without seeing how similar the Goldwater and Paul stories are—the anti-state energy, the mistrust and warring with the hidebound establishment, even the streaks of weird paranoia among some of the activists.

Goldwater and Paul were both legislators known more for sternly saying "no" than passing laws. Like Paulites today, the Goldwater movement in the Republican Party in 1960 was "experienced by the old regulars as if it were an alien invasion," in the words of Rick Perlstein in his great history of the Goldwater movement, Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. When Goldwaterites took over state parties, like in Nebraska, the old party regulars fought back to change rules to blunt their opponents' victory. Both candidates lived off a huge number of small donations, cared more about being right than being president, and were blessed with masses of young, passionate volunteers willing to overturn their lives to knock on doors for their man in bitter cold. Both even saw their delegates involved in scuffles where cops got called at state conventions. And both, their admirers insisted, were leaders of a new American revolution to purify and revive the first one.

From 1960 to 1964, Goldwater morphed from dangerous joke to candidate. And his '64 defeat famously bore fruit in the form of Goldwater supporter Ronald Reagan's rise to world power 16 years later. It's a story whose echoes sound encouragingly in the heads of many political operatives surrounding the Paul revolution.

A more recent development in the Republican Party—and a more cautionary tale for the future of Paulism—is the aftermath of Pat Robertson's failed 1988 run. United in outsiderhood, Paul partisans such as Drew Ivers from his Iowa operation were often former Robertson supporters. Robertson advised his people to organize and try to take over the GOP from the grassroots. Thanks to Robertson's campaign and its aftermath, the Republican Party of the past two decades has been influenced by the Religious Right more than their raw numbers might justify.

The fate of the Christian right reveals a trap the Paul movement must avoid, even as it emulates the Christian right's tactics of inhabiting the party from the bottom up—tactics that have given Paul forces significant control already of state parties in Iowa, Nevada, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota. For giving electoral fealty to the GOP without question, the religious right received little but lip service to its traditionalist ideas, and few actual achievements. The libertarian wing could easily see itself similarly neutered, voting for Romney manqués as far as the eye can see and getting in return just a contemptuous, "What are you going to do? Vote third party?"

Goldwater is not the only example of "radical outsider to candidate" in postwar American politics. While their ideology matches directly only on opposition to war, Paul's style and success most emulates the Democratic Party's antiwar challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) from 1968. McCarthy's youth appeal, anti-war stance, intellectuality, and fights with the party establishment on the caucus and state convention level over delegates, all track Paul's story closely.

Both were being trounced within their own party, yet polled strongly against or ahead of their presumptive other-party competitor in the general election. Both ran more as themselves than faithful or committed Party members; Paul never endorsed Romney, and McCarthy only endorsed Hubert Humphrey grudgingly in the last week before the election.

Lawsuits over proper delegation allocation were filed on behalf of both McCarthy and Paul. Both were supported by young zealots who were willing to tear down their existing party and build it anew. Both had unconventional, intellectual political styles, and were aware that what success they had came from decentralized efforts of fans more than their own official campaigns. Both saw their active campaigns fizzle in the summer without ever dropping out, and both felt it necessary to steel their supporters for disappointment by admitting they knew they couldn't win before it was all over (though Paul did so much earlier). And both saw their campaigns as ultimately educational, and about creating a reform movement within their respective parties.

While McCarthy himself fizzled when he tried to run again in 1972, George McGovern's winning '72 campaign was in most respects the rise to power of Eugene McCarthyism: anti-war, anti-establishment, and opening up the Democratic Party's rules and delegate selection in a more populist manner.

Historical analogies don't prove further victories for Paulism are destined; just that we know it isn't impossible for factions seen as small, outré, failed, and repudiated to quickly dominate a political party. If Paul's general outlook has any validity, history is on his side. The problems he and his movement provide unique insights into and solutions for—overstrained fiscal and monetary policy, overreaching foreign and domestic mission—are not likely to disappear in the next decade unless a Paul-like solution is attempted.

But his ideas won't march on in a vacuum; actual human individuals and groups need to further them. Various possible and presumptive heirs remain or are arising in Washington—including, most literally, his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Ron Paul had a very precise and detailed set of positions, attitudes, and strategies that no single remaining politician shares precisely. But it's not just Rand Paul and second-term Paul fan Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) around now; an entire mini-caucus of people Paul explicitly endorsed (which he didn't do a lot of) are currently in D.C., including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) and Steve Stockman (R-Texas)

Most of them have already shown their insurrectionist stuff by feuding with House Speaker John Boehner, refusing to vote for his preferred fiscal cliff settlement, or for his continued speakerhood. The Paul-identifieds are just one faction of a larger bunch of new Republicans who Politico is calling the "Hell, No!" caucus. They are, Politico writes, "opposed to any new spending, willing to risk default to force spending cuts, dismissive of new gun laws and deeply skeptical about immigration reform…. Many in the media…often underestimate just how conservative and how impervious to criticism and leadership browbeating these members are when appraising the chances for change in the next two years." The fact that such Paulite tendencies, at least when it comes to taxing and spending, stretch beyond his self-identified admirers is key to those tendencies sticking and thriving in the GOP.

Because, make no mistake, Paulism or even any kind of mild support for tougher, less compromising, more small-spending measures is under attack from the party and its media enablers (and even its media detractors). Amash was booted from his Budget Committee seat, and John Podhoretz in the New York Post characterized the mini-rebellion against Boehner as "cannibalism." Michael Tomasky at Daily Beast considers them "vandals" and David Frum is appalled the Republican Party is so full of maniacs that it can't get its members to vote for crappy bills that barely touch spending. With self-identified Tea Partiers shrinking and losing independence, there is room for a new dominant anti-establishment wing of the party, and Rand Paul and Justin Amash are well-positioned to lead it.

On the national level, a former Maine Paul delegate, a George Mason University law graduate and former U.S. Army Security and Intelligence Command man named Mark Willis, is running an insurgent campaign against Republican National Committee Chair Reince Preibus, vowing to repeal various rules passed at the Tampa convention last summer that centralize power over rules and delegates nationally. Willis vows to return power to the insurgent grassroots. But being from the Paul team does not necessarily mean one is a bomb-thrower in the party—former Paul Iowa campaign worker A.J. Spiker, who recently won re-election as Iowa's state party chair (and is still dueling with the old guard), is sticking with Preibus.

The GOP is staggering, and proving itself incapable of meaningful change in the direction its core voters are supposed to care about. Some strong shift from Romney/Boehnerism is desperately needed, though some suggest instead a doubling down on the GOP's social conservatism rather than flirting with libertarianism. Liberal journalist Peter Beinart has made a convincing case that a confused Republican Party will be primed for a convincing "political outsider" to dominate in 2016. With Ron Paul gone, few people of any political heft are more outside the general Washington attitudes about spending, taxing, and foreign policy than Rand Paul.

Ron Paul both embodied and inspired a no compromise libertarian radicalism, one that no one on the scene now fully embodies. Rand Paul upsets some of his dad's foreign policy fans by seeming too solicitous of Israel on his trip there this week; Justin Amash admits he'd consider tax hikes as part of a serious entitlement cut deal; Kerry Bentivolio explicitly denies being a Paul guy—he's a Reagan man. Thomas Massie told me in an interview in the forthcoming March Reason that he doesn't want Ron Paul's mantle.

Ron Paul is gone from American politics. But important aspects of Paulism—a willingness to seriously cut government spending and functions, an unwillingness to be a good party member at all costs, a willingness to rethink our foreign military and aid commitments and respect civil liberties—still have a scattering of staunch defenders, one of them also named Paul. And if federal irresponsibility on spending and debt continues as it seems it will, these radical solutions may start seeming sensible and necessary to more than just the 11 percent of the GOP primary voters who made Ron Paul a legend.