by Eric Shierman
On May 15, 2007 Fox News political analysts thought they had just witnessed the sudden meltdown of one of the many candidates for the Republican nomination for president when Ron Paul uttered the seemingly unthinkable suggestion that terrorist threats to the United States are a reaction to America’s interventions in world affairs. Thinking they had just witnessed the mother of all gaffes, political pundits began lining up to ask him if he would now be forced to withdraw from the race.
A year later Ron Paul had already earned more votes that Rudolph Giuliani, raised more money than most of his rivals’ campaign coffers combined, and began growing a political movement that fertilized Tea Party opposition to the inevitable Democratic winner of the general election. Brian Doherty’s book Ron Paul’s rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired is not just a political biography of Ron Paul; it is a historical analysis of a political movement that could very well represent the future of the Republican Party.
Born in 1935, Ron Paul was defeated in his first race for Congress in 1974. When the conservative Democrat was soon thereafter appointed by the Ford administration to the Federal Maritime Commission, Paul won the special election to replace him. The first vote Paul ever cast was the first and last time he compromised his principles. It was a vote that expanded federal involvement in education and Paul faced strong pressure from the Republican House leadership to vote for it. He reluctantly did so and soon vowed he did not fancy his political career enough to ever do that again.
Paul quickly established his reputation as an iconoclast. Due to the domination of the south by the Democratic Party in those days, Paul actually held a swing district. Robert Dornan had helped Paul enormously to get elected, so it came as a shock to the Republican leadership as well as “B-1 Bob” when Paul voted against the supersonic strategic bomber. He was left to fend for himself in his bid for reelection in 1976 and Paul lost to another conservative Democrat that was more than happy to vote for any weapon system of any price. With no party support, he was elected to Congress a second time in a rematch two years later, an election that permanently sealed Paul’s independence.
This second stint in Congress was cut short by his failed run for the US Senate in 1984 which Paul lost to Phil Graham. Over the next three years out of office, Paul would build a name for himself in national libertarian circles as a public intellectual gadfly, building a national base of support by publishing two ghost written mailers, The Ron Paul Investment Letter and The Ron Paul Survival report. These publications managed to appeal to both libertarians and populist conservatives across the country, but the type of shock-stunt language used to attract the latter would come to haunt Paul later. In the mid 80s he was developing a base of support that sparked interest in his nomination as the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988.
Ron Paul tried to burn his bridges to the Republican Party with as much fanfare as he could, writing a letter to the RNC Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf that was leaked to the Associate Press announcing he could no long remain a member of a party that had “given us unprecedented deficits, massive monetary inflation, indiscriminate military spending, an irrational and unconstitutional foreign policy, zooming foreign aid, the exaltation of international banking, and the attack on our personal liberties and privacy.” Paul said he was “wary of the Republican Party’s efforts to reduce the size of government,” because “big government has been legitimized in a way the Democrats could have never accomplished.”
Despite Paul’s devoted national base of support, he had a tough ride in 1988. First, let’s keep it all in perspective, while Paul’s mailing list and fundraising abilities dwarfed any other minor party candidate, it paled in comparison to the institutional infrastructure of the two major parties. Second, Paul’s buttoned-down demeanor, personal religiosity, and conservative positions on immigration and abortion did not sit well with the Libertarian Party of the 80s. Paul faced a spirited primary campaign from Russell Means, a former leader of the Sioux Indian’s 1973 revolt at Wounded Knee, who proudly claimed to have stopped paying his federal income taxes in 1971. Paul managed to clinch the nomination with the strong support of Murray Rothbard and his network of connections at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute only to win a mere 420,000 votes in the general election, less than the Libertarian Party’s previous record in 1980.
Doherty argues it would be a mistake to see Paul’s 1988 presidential run as a failure. There was no chance for a minor party to win anyway, but Paul added a new army of supporters to his direct mail list. When he returned to the GOP in 1996, it was less as a prodigal son begging for forgiveness than an insurgent mounting a rebellion with greater resources than he had wielded before. Paul’s old district was now firmly held by Tom Delay, but he owned a beach home in Texas’ 14th Congressional District which Paul changed to his legal residency to enter the Republican primary there. Newt Gingrich did everything he could to stop Paul, including convincing the Democratic incumbent to switch parties with the promise of considerable national Republican donors’ money in his primary campaign. With substantial resources at his disposal, the not-so-conservative former Democrat Greg Laughlin beat Paul in the primary, but with less than 50% of the vote. The Texas Republican Party then holds a second, run-off primary for the two candidates with the greatest plurality. Paul beat Laughlin in the second round by a narrow 54%, cruising on to an easy general election victory.
Ron Paul was back in Congress. For a decade he seemed content being a loyal nuisance to the Republican leadership. He voted for Clinton’s impeachment, but even then took the opportunity to stick it to his caucus on the House floor:
There is a major irony in this impeachment proceeding. A lot has been said the last two months by members of the Judiciary Committee on both sides of the aisle regarding the Constitution and how it must be upheld. But if we are witnessing . . . a serious move toward obeying the constitutional restraints, I will anxiously look forward to the next session when 80 percent of our routine legislation will be voted down.
Many would assume the invasion of Iraq was the trigger for escalating his factional fight with the majority of his party, but that would be a mistake. It was the Patriot Act. Previously, Paul’s most high profile legislative success was his defeat of a seemingly popular “know your customer” set of banking regulations which would have enlisted banks in profiling depositors’ transactions for federal law enforcement. On this point Doherty interviewed Paul’s legislative assistant for banking, Bradley Jansen:
Paul’s office organized a broad-based coalition against the regulations, including anti-tax and anti-regulation groups from the libertarian-leaning right. “It was done in the name of the war on drugs, to fight money laundering supposedly, so I went to the drug policy groups. I got banking associations on board, a lot of the Christian right on board because they didn’t like Clinton,” Jansen says.
Jansen recalls an “only in Ron Paul’s office” meeting on Capitol Hill, with a representative from Concerned Women for America sitting next to a representative of the Marijuana Policy Project sitting next to a representative of the Independent Bankers Association sitting next to “some lefty consumer privacy group” sitting next to the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Paul’s office managed to generate hundreds of thousands of public comments opposed to the program, Jansen says. While that law was defeated, in the wake of 9/11 most of its negative provisions have been enacted under other cover—a point Paul indeed often made after the attacks about the rush to control.”
It was not so much the budgetary costs from our expensive 9/11 wars or foreign policy in general. It was the way an accelerating growth of the federal government under George W. Bush was undermining domestic civil liberty that drew Paul back to the national stage.
At first he was reluctant to run for President again. After parrying aside many different national constituencies that were trying to mount a draft Paul campaign, it was his old staffer Kent Snyder that convinced him to run. It would not be a serious presidential bid, the kind that keeps you up at night and away from your family. It was just an attempt to use the platform of a candidacy to embark on a Jeremiad against big government conservatism.
This narrow purpose snowballed out of control in the wake of Paul’s exchange with Giuliani. The then novel website YouTube sent Paul viral into both the popular culture and into the short attention spans of people who would never have otherwise considered voting at all, let alone for a Republican. The media naturally lumped Ron Paul with the likes of Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, single-issue candidates using the presidential stage to advance their cause (immigration for Tancredo, defense for Hunter). Paul got little to no media coverage in 2007 and was soon excluded from the debates, yet he could stage rallies overflowing with devout supporters, something Obama could do but none of the other Republican candidates could match.
The enthusiastic attendance of Paul events was complemented by grassroots fundraising on a mass scale never before seen. The “money bomb” was developed where all his supporters were encouraged to give whatever small amount on the same symbolic day. Two of these days introduced the imagery of both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements. November 5th was chosen as the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the British Parliament in 1605 by using the mask from the dystopian movie V for Vendetta as an icon that four years later would be embraced by anarchists in the Occupy movement. Then on the 234rd anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the “Tea Party Money Bomb” raised $6 million dollars on December 16, 2007, an unthinkable sum for the all but broke McCain campaign.
The Ron Paul campaign of 2008 floundered for two salient reasons. First it could never really mount an effective challenge to the frontrunners. Doherty makes clear this had less to do with the lack of media attention and more to do with the fact the people running Paul’s campaign were amateurs that did not know how to win even if the stars aligned for them. Their events were largely organized by fans outside the Paul campaign using social media. The bounty of money raised often got spent on silly marketing bling like a giant blimp. And the official Paul campaign could not control the messaging of its many volunteers who would often bring their own signs and flyers linking Paul to obscure issues.
Paul’s second limitation was probably the most significant. He broke the categories of what a Republican was thought to be at the time. This was attractive to many independents on the fringe of political identity, but Paul held at least one strong view that alienated most reliable primary voters. His limited government bonafides were solid, but they were so consistent that his desire to limit the Pentagon too lost many traditional conservatives. There are moderate Republicans out there who love Paul’s support for gay marriage, but his unshakable pro-life position was a deal breaker for RINOs too.
A good example of the detail to which Doherty’s book delves into is nicely captured by his account of the origin of Paul’s view of abortion:
At his obstetrics residency in Pittsburgh, he had the abortion experience that defined his attitude toward the practice, a story he sometimes tells on the campaign trail. He even entered it in the Congressional Record in his first stint in Congress: “I did not always draw rather stringent lines on abortion until I was forced as a young physician to face up to the problem. I was called to assist one day as many young residents are in an operation performed by a staff member. It turned out to be a hysterotomy, a type of caesarian section with the removal of a 2-pound infant that cried and breathed. The infant was put in the trash and left to die. . . . We as physicians can now save many infants that are born weighing 2 pounds. . . . [F]ollowing this experience I reconsidered my position of ‘necessary abortion’ and came up with an entirely different perspective.” That’s another example of the Paul style—in most circumstances even his strong emotions are delivered calmly, measuredly, dispassionately. When I hear him personally deliver a version of this story, it is no more heated than this reads on the page.
In his assessment of Paul’s limitations as a candidate, I think Doherty was perhaps too kind. I can think of some other obvious factors such as the fact Paul was way too old to run for office and he has been at best a mediocre debater, coming off as extremely cagey to everyone but those who are already predisposed to accept his message. There I said it. With all of these challenges however, the beauty of the Ron Paul phenomenon is that the power of his ideas transcends the flaws in this pioneering messenger. The Ron Paul campaign of 2008 was destined to fail yet it possessed something none of his Republican rivals had, the ability to spawn a movement.
No Republican was going to win in 2008, but it was Ron Paul’s movement than buttressed America from a progressive takeover. In a time of such economic crisis that moment of Obama’s inauguration entailed, we would have expected something like the Occupy movement to fill the streets, demanding even more big government solutions than Obama himself thought politically possible. Indeed the Obama campaign did everything it could to convert its massive list of supporters into an activist group to back the president’s policies, but the opposite happened. The Tea Party movement emerged instead.
Looking back it might be too easy to assume a mass movement of middle class Americans demanding austerity during our economy’s darkest hour was inevitable, but it most certainly was not. A strange myth has emerged that a spontaneous rant by Rick Santelli triggered the massive demonstrations we saw build up for the next two years. Since very few people were watching CNBC that early in the morning, this narrative sort of begs the question: who was it that immediately copied that clip, put it on YouTube, and shared it with every known blogger of free-market persuasion? It was not the people at CNBC.
It was the same people from the former Ron Paul campaign who had perfected the ability to bypass the media to reach a mass audience. When John McCain wrapped up the GOP nomination he and all but one of his rivals were broke: Ron Paul still had $3.5 million in the bank which they used to convert their campaign into a PAC called LibertyPAC and create two new advocacy groups called the Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty (which continues to dwarf most universities’ College Republican clubs in both size and passion). The Campaign for Liberty actually raised more money in 2009 than the Ron Paul campaign did in 2008 to continue financing a message war room that sought to connect a broad coalition of opponents to Obama’s agenda. They held their second Tea Party rally on its next historic anniversary.
On January 24, 2009 Young American’s for Liberty organized the first off-date Tea Party rally as a demonstration in New York against Governor David Patterson’s proposed obesity taxes on sugary products. That protest proved such a success, the Campaign for Liberty challenged all other limited government organizations to hold tea parties of their own, sharing organizing tips and offering assistance for turnout. By February 19th using Paul Campaign terminology, Rick Santelli simply helped fan the flames of protest that the Campaign for Liberty had already ignited. It was this former Ron Paul campaign infrastructure that made Santelli a household name beyond the few people who watch his reporting from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange early each morning by immediately copying that clip and rapidly sending it to every contact in their vast network.
If the Tea Party had been nothing more than an extension of Ron Paul’s campaign, it would not have had the mass appeal and influence that it has had. Neither Ron Paul’s foreign policy views nor even his views on the size of government would have attracted enough Republicans to defeat Richard Lugar in a primary race. The Campaign for Liberty fertilized the Tea Party movement but has since preserved ideological purity of the Ron Paul Revolution by keeping a healthy distance from its creation as the Tea Party began to attract the Sarah Palins, people sporting “keep your government hands off my Medicare” signs, and largely devolving into a decentralized auxiliary wing of the broader Republican Party. Ron Paul’s fingerprints remain visible in the Paul like transactional relationship the Tea Party has with old party politics and how opinion surveys of Tea Party goers show a remarkably informed perspective on monetary policy that would otherwise have been nothing more than a fleetingly temporary populist backlash against bank bailouts.
Deeply embedded into Paul’s 2012 campaign, Doherty is able to provide so much new detail it defies summery. Running another campaign four years later was never in doubt, but what to jettison and what to keep from 2008 was. Emerging from the first Republican debate in Greenville, SC on May 5th of last year was a modified strategy. Paul would retain his long held positions and speak with unhedged clarity, but he would also hire some professional Republican consultants to craft what would have otherwise merely been a well funded speaking tour, taking it to the next level.
With Dimitri Kesari and Trygve Olson came negative campaign ads and a singular focus on delegates. The Ames Iowa straw poll demonstrated the Paul Campaign’s new found effectiveness. While decidedly unscientific, this straw poll is a fairly good measure of each campaign’s ground game in Iowa, because only registered Iowa voters with an Iowa driver’s license are allowed to participate. This is a major fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, but while an unlimited amount of tickets to vote can be purchased by each campaign, only the presence of actual Iowans willing to cast them can make a difference. Michelle Bachmann’s campaign saw her victory as critical, managing to blow most of her money on the effort. She not only covered the cost of voting for her “supporters” – she paid people to vote, also providing them a free Randy Travis concert to boot. The Paul Campaign not only did not have to pay its Iowan supporters to vote, it required them to pay for their tickets as well. Paul came in a close second place.
That Paul would do so well in a state that non-overtly religious candidates tend to avoid should have been big news, but if one were watching the media coverage the next day, one would have thought Paul came in last. The media blackout Paul endured was so blatant, even Jon Stewart’s progressive leaning Daily Show which has been no friend to Tea Party candidates, called the networks out.
Doherty puts Paul’s media troubles into perspective. Political commentators were likely responding to the undeniable fact there was a clear ceiling to how high his support within the GOP could go. Had Paul gotten more favorable coverage, no doubt this would have propelled him to momentarily higher levels as evident by the temporary front-runner status enjoyed by ill-informed buffoons like Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain. If Paul had been able to stay in the media spotlight, he would likely have performed like Rick Santorum as a distinct standard bearer for a determined faction within the Republican Party that was unable to win the majority in 2012 with only his constituency’s support. Both Rick Santorum’s and Ron Paul’s voting blocks preferred a centrist like Mitt Romney over each other’s guy.
Doherty concludes Paul and the movement he has been leading won this election the way the long shot candidacy of Barry Goldwater ultimately won in 1960. Even if he had defeated Richard Nixon in the primary that year, Goldwater would have lost the general election by a wide margin just like he did four years later. Goldwater’s true victory was his creation of an organized wing of the Republican Party we now call the “movement conservatives” that finally came to fruition twenty years later in the election of Ronald Reagan.
Paul has created a new movement akin to Goldwater’s that seeks to surpass it. Motivated by an anti-Tea Party perspective, it is often commentators from the left that like to point out a very undeniably astute observation: Ronald Reagan’s record as governor of California would be seen as too moderate to win his party’s presidential nomination today. If Reagan were alive and constitutionally able to run for another term in 2012 his Republican opponents’ opposition researchers would have had a field day with Reagan’s record as president too. “Reagan grew the rate of increase in federal government spending far faster than Barack Obama,” attack ads would say, and they would be correct. Indeed Ron Paul temporarily left his party because of Reagan and that squandered moment. If you look at the arc of Republican Party history, the Reagan Republican has become the new Rockefeller Republican.
Reagan’s coalition included several constituencies that were stakeholders in increased federal spending. The Soviet Union was in immanent economic collapse at the very moment Reagan was sworn in to office, but to get his 15 carrier / 600 ship Navy, B1 / B2 Air Force, and M1 / M2 Army he eagerly agreed to the very automatic entitlement program increases that are now threatening our own collapse, thus the warfare state reinforced the welfare state. Paul’s revolution is primarily an innovation of Goldwater’s that now understands how in our Madisonian form of government, if Wilsonian foreign policy goals are in one party and Wilsonian domestic policy goals are in another, Woodrow Wilson’s progressive vision of America will continue to win no matter who is president.
What Doherty’s incredibly perceptive book does not know and cannot know, is who will lead this new movement forward. He strongly suggests it’s going to be Ron Paul’s son Rand Paul, but Doherty also devotes many pages of his book to identifying Paul inspired candidates running in 2012 congressional primaries too. I would suggest it will be events that do the voting for them. Just as it was Paul Volker’s vote on the Federal Open Market Committee that really elected Ronald Reagan, it will likely be bond traders that elect Ron Paul’s future standard bearer when they eventual start clicking “sell” on their computer screens. When that transformational administration comes into office, Brian Doherty will be known as the author of the classic book that explains how we got there. He will be presenting his book at Powell’s downtown store tomorrow Friday June 8th at 7:30pm. Get there early; Ron Paul related stuff draws a crowd really fast.
Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change, and also writes for The Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.