Ron Paul is blowing up real good

The rambunctious GOP candidate wants to drag the U.S. out of Iraq, can the war on drugs, and overturn the Patriot Act. No wonder Republican power brokers want to boot him off the stage.

Published June 2, 2007 1:36PM (EDT)

The antiwar, pro-gold, libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul tells me he would rather be riding his bicycle than speaking to another reporter on a Thursday afternoon. "My vice is that I'm obsessed with exercise," says the Republican congressman from Texas.

But running for president does not exactly disagree with him. All day long, he has been hustling from one press appearance to the next, a high-energy bundle packed into a lithe 71-year-old frame. His brown eyes sparkle with fire as he blurts out one big adjective after another. "Preposterous," he says of Rudy Giuliani, who accused Paul in mid-May of blaming America for the attacks of Sept. 11. "Horrendous," he says of the security screenings at airports. "Tremendous," he says of the Internet response to his presidential candidacy.

We are sitting in the Speaker's Lobby at the U.S. Capitol, a fireplace-studded salon off the floor of the House of Representatives. I have come to find out why so many people care so deeply about Paul, who is to the Republican Party about what Cindy Sheehan has been to the Democrats, an outsider sounding the alarm in unconventional tones and demanding an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. For years, Paul had been the GOP's doddering old uncle, advocating strict small government principles too extreme for most of his colleagues. In the last few weeks, however, he has evidenced the first inklings of becoming something more -- the public face of a small but passionate Republican revolt against President Bush's foreign policy. Paul's dissent is public enough, and his views inconvenient enough, that some Republican power brokers have wondered aloud about ushering him off the public stage.

In a few hours, the Memorial Day recess will begin, but Paul is not in any rush. He appears, in fact, to be having the time of his life. If exercise is his principle obsession, then sharing his unorthodox theories of economics and foreign policy comes in a very close second. "I don't think we have a republic anymore," he tells me, sitting up in his chair. "I think we have a very domineering federal government, where we have a world empire we have to manage every single day."

This is why Paul is running. Though he has no real shot at winning, he has a lot to say. He's the only Republican candidate who wants to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and withdraw the U.S. Navy from the waters off the Iranian coast. He wants America to pull out of the United Nations, NATO, the International Criminal Court, and most international trade agreements. He wants to abolish FEMA, end the federal war on drugs, get rid of the Department of Homeland Security, send the U.S. military to guard the Mexican border, stop federal prosecutions of obscenity, eliminate the IRS, end most foreign aid, overturn the Patriot Act, phase out Social Security, revoke public services for illegal immigrants, repeal No Child Left Behind, and reestablish gold and silver as legal tender.

"To maintain our current account deficit we borrow almost $3 billion a day," he tells me. "It's unsustainable. It will end. And it's going to end in a worse fashion than it did in 1979 and 1980, when interest rates went to 21 percent." I must not have reacted as he expected, because he presses on. "Nobody seems to care," he says. "It will slip back into a government run by tyrants, where you can't go from one state to another -- you have to show your papers. It already exists on the airlines."

Paul has been speaking like this for years, but few ever really noticed. He often addressed an empty House chamber, boring the C-SPAN producers with his libertarian disquisitions on policy. But then he decided to run for president as a Republican, which gained him entry in the crowded Republican debates. And then former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took a shot at him in South Carolina, demanding that Paul apologize for suggesting that the Sept. 11 attackers had been motivated by the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. "He really inadvertently gave us a boost that was unimaginable," Paul says of Giuliani.

Since then, Paul has been blowing up. The national interview requests keep coming, despite the fact that he is at the bottom of the bottom tier of Republican candidates. Last week, he flew to California to do HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher." "He's my new hero," gushed the liberal Maher to his viewers. CNN has made him a near-regular Sunday feature. "I'm more Republican than they are," Paul said of his fellow primary candidates in one appearance. This Monday, he will go to New York to sit with Jon Stewart on the "The Daily Show." Then it is on to Tuesday's Republican debate in New Hampshire, where Paul is sure to assume his role as the straight-talking foil to Bush-era Republican dogma.

"The big question is how many people out there are sympathetic to my views," Paul tells me. "We still don't know. But we are surprised to find out that it is more than anybody dreamed of."

By modern standards, the Paul campaign is barely a campaign. He raised just $640,000 in the first quarter, compared to Mitt Romney's $23 million and Giuliani's $16 million. He has made only one visit to each of the three early voting states, has no organized operation in Iowa or South Carolina, and boasts a national campaign staff of just six. But Paul's supporters, who number in the untold thousands, are certainly making their virtual mark.

They have begun to dominate the Republican presidential race on the Internet, though there is no evidence yet that the buzz will translate at the polls. Paul's campaign now has roughly twice as many YouTube subscribers (12,000) as Barack Obama, and more than twice as many as all the other Republican candidates combined. Paul regularly wins unscientific online polls, while barely causing a blip in the scientific offline ones. His name is among the most searched terms on Technorati, the blog search engine. Before his appearance on Maher's show, online activists used the Web site to organize an impromptu rally for him outside the studio.

"The toothpaste is out of the tube," says Kent Snyder, a former telecom executive who is chairman of the Paul campaign. Snyder helped manage Paul's relatively insignificant 1988 White House run as the Libertarian Party candidate. Paul came in third in that election, with 431,499 votes, or .47 percent of the electorate, which was better than Lyndon LaRouche's .03 percent. Back then, there was no way to easily organize national support on a shoestring budget. "We were doing faxes and phone trees," Snyder says. Now Paul's supporters are doing the work on their own, bombarding news organizations with demands that Paul get more coverage, setting up Web sites like in honor of Paul's writings, and laying the groundwork for an antiwar protest campaign in the spirit of Howard Dean, circa 2003.

The online outpouring has, in some ways, forced the campaign to play catch-up. Travel to Second Life, the online virtual-reality social networking site, and you will find a Ron Paul campaign headquarters, above which hovers a virtual libertarian bar with a marijuana plant growing behind one of the couches. (Paul does not advocate smoking pot, though he is sympathetic to medical marijuana; he sees the war on drugs as a costly failure that takes away civil liberties.) "No one on the campaign has ever seen it," campaign spokesman Jesse Benton says of the virtual weed. Benton tried to visit the Second Life site, but could not figure out how to move around in the virtual space. "After 45 minutes, I couldn't get out of the second room on that island," Benton said. Like so much else in the Paul campaign, the virtual headquarters was created by an enthusiastic supporter, independently.

It's a safe bet that the virtual marijuana, and the frenzy over Paul's current presidential ambitions, would never have happened without the war in Iraq, which Paul has vocally opposed from the start. He first came to Congress in 1976, motivated by his personal outrage at Richard Nixon for abandoning the gold standard and imposing temporary wage and price controls. A child of Pennsylvania, and an Air Force flight surgeon by training, Paul fashioned himself a student of economic theory. In particular, he was a devotee of the counter-establishment economist Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian whose free-market prescriptions for economic ills -- less government spending during recession, for instance -- made it difficult for him to find paid work in U.S. academia in the 1960s. Paul stayed in Congress until 1984, when he lost the Texas Republican Senate primary and decided to return to his work as a family doctor. After Republicans recaptured Congress in 1994, he decided to give the House another try, winning a seat in a redrawn district in 1996. "They talked about how they were going to shrink government and all these promises," Paul remembers of the Republican revolution. "That's been a disappointment."

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two weeks later, Paul took to the House floor to advocate a complete reexamination of American foreign policy. "An economic issue does exist in this war," he told the House on Sept. 25. "Oil!" By Paul's reading of history, the rise of Islamic fundamentalists who targeted America resulted from U.S. interventionist policies in the Middle East. He was also one of the first to warn about expansions of federal power in the name of war. "The heat of the moment has prompted calls by some of our officials for great sacrifice of our liberties and privacy," he said. "This poses a great danger to our way of life."

At the time, such pronouncements were unpopular, even to many on Paul's own staff. Eric Dondero, a former Paul staffer and Navy vet who now plans to challenge Paul for his House seat in 2008, said that the staff had to work hard in 2001 to convince their boss to support the authorization for the use of force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. "Everybody on the staff was just baffled and befuddled," said Dondero. "It was a last-minute thing, and it kept us all on edge." In the end, only one politician in both the House and Senate, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., opposed the authorization of force.

But Paul stuck to his guns as the debate turned to Iraq. Before the invasion, he raised questions about evidence that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction. He publicly mocked the idea of creating a functioning democracy in Iraq. He rejected the principle of preemptive war. He also opposed the Patriot Act. He attacked the Bush administration for abandoning habeas corpus, authorizing harsh interrogation and permitting warrantless wiretaps. He opposed federalizing Transportation Security Administration workers to guard air travel. He was blunt, forceful and not always politically sensitive.

In the Speaker's Lobby, Paul describes the federal airline security system as an extra-constitutional affront to civil liberties, and thinks security should be handled by the private sector. Then he takes a rather un-presidential jab at the appearance of many TSA screeners, a workforce heavily populated by minorities and immigrants. "We quadrupled the TSA, you know, and hired more people who look more suspicious to me than most Americans who are getting checked," he says. "Most of them are, well, you know, they just don't look very American to me. If I'd have been looking, they look suspicious ... I mean, a lot of them can't even speak English, hardly. Not that I'm accusing them of anything, but it's sort of ironic."

This is not the first time Paul has veered into potentially insensitive territory. In 1992, a copy of his newsletter, the Ron Paul Survival Report, criticized the judicial system in Washington, D.C., before adding, "I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal." Under a section headlined "Terrorist Update," the following sentence ran, "If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be."

These quotations became an issue during Paul's 1996 campaign for Congress. During the campaign, he declined to distance himself from the statements. But in a 2001 interview with Texas Monthly, he said he had never written or approved those words for his own newsletter. He said he failed to disavow the words during the campaign on the advice of his political advisors. "They just weren't my words," he tells me. "They got in because I wasn't always there. I didn't have total control. And I would be on vacations and things got in there that shouldn't have been."

It is unlikely that such statements will ever become much of an issue in the campaign. Paul's role in the Republican field -- and much of his current appeal -- is focused squarely on the issue of war. He gives a voice to the isolationist conservative tradition that President Bush abandoned with the invasion of Iraq. He offers a chance for front-runners like Giuliani to burnish their tough-on-terrorist credentials by attacking him. And he brings to the Republican debate the mainstream frustration with America's foreign policy. It is a quirky role that a self-styled intellectual like Paul is only too happy to fill.

"I was always taught that I can't change your mind by grabbing you by the shirt collar and yelling at you," he says before getting up to vote on the House floor. "But if you try to understand the issues, learn how to present them, and make those ideas available, someday, somebody might listen. And now I am beginning to think they are listening a little bit more. And that might lead to much bigger things. Who knows what will happen in the campaign?"

For being such a cynic about government and America's economic future, Paul remains an unabashed optimist about his own political future. But perhaps that is because if you compare him to the rest of the Republican field, Paul has so little to lose.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2008 Elections Iraq War Republican Party Ron Paul Rudy Giuliani