Outside the large outdoor tent where a group of South Carolina Republicans had gathered for a town hall discussion about the presidential race, a few demonstrators shouted loudly and waved signs from the sidelines. In a scene that repeats itself around the Republican campaign trail, they turned out to be not from the Occupy movement, but supporters of Ron Paul, a fellow Republican running for president.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who was moderating the event, called out to them, “Come into the tent!” They didn’t budge, showing once again that bringing Paul’s movement into the Republican fold is easier said than done.
Paul, a 76-year-old Republican congressman from Texas, has long been regarded as the party’s cranky libertarian uncle. He inspires jokes about legalizing pot—and eye rolls with talk of moving the U.S. dollar to the gold standard. But in this crowded campaign, Paul has moved from the fringes to the main stage, repeatedly garnering enough votes and dollars to stay in the race while other candidates drop by the wayside. He has little chance of winning the nomination, but the soft-spoken gynecologist from Texas has stunned Republicans with his strong showing. Paul came in second in the New Hampshire primary, behind only Mitt Romney, with 23 per cent of the vote—triple what he drew when he ran for president four years ago. In Iowa, where the top two finishers, Romney and Rick Santorum, drew a quarter of the vote each, Paul came in third with one-fifth. Going into the South Carolina primary, polls had him around 15 per cent.
A Ron Paul campaign event is like nothing else on the Republican campaign trail.
He lacks the bombast of Newt Gingrich, who blasts Barack Obama as a “radical” bent on imposing “European-style socialism and secularism” on America, and lacks the Christian moralizing of Rick Santorum, not to mention the patriotic declarations of Mitt Romney that America is “the hope of the earth.” That’s because Paul isn’t just gunning for Obama, he’s running a kind of “pox-on-all-your-houses” campaign against postwar America, or at least America since it abandoned the gold standard in the 1970s. “This administration has been pretty bad,” he tells 400 enthusiastic supporters at a rally at Myrtle Beach. “But the last 30 to 40 years haven’t been great either.”
Paul’s events are more like college lectures from a slightly gnomish, eccentric professor whose dark suits always seem a size or two too big. Paul isn’t running to become president so much as to build a movement. “There is something much bigger than me going on in this country these last four or five years,” he says. “It’s growing by leaps and bounds—the freedom movement.”
For years Paul has preached small government, individual liberties, tight monetary policy and downsizing America’s role abroad. In Congress, he regularly voted against his own party’s legislation. In the post-9/11 era, he was seen as a crackpot. But in today’s post-Iraq-war, post-credit-bubble, post-deficit-explosion era, Paul offers a kind of conservative reckoning with the legacy of the Bush years—from the loose monetary policy that he blames for feeding the credit bubble and the financial crisis, to a growing deficit and expanded federal role in public education and the swaggering militarism that cost America so much.
His message is well-timed. It’s as if the party is catching up to his critique of the Bush years. In 2012, Republicans can’t get far enough from Bush. In a typical speech this week, Gingrich for example, uttered Ronald Reagan’s name seven times—Bush’s, zero. The Tea Party movement showed the frustration with the growth of government spending and bailouts under Republicans as well as Democrats. But Paul was here before the Tea Party. Paul’s zeal to abolish the Federal Reserve system was once regarded as nutty. Now it is commonplace to hear Republicans accusing the government of “debasing” the currency by expanding the money supply, and warning about inflation (mainstream economists say the Fed’s actions prevented a far worse financial crisis, but Paul blames the system of “fiat money” for a cycle of financial booms and busts).
Still, Paul is a lone voice on the Republican campaign trail speaking in defence of civil liberties, criticizing the Patriot Act and condemning the newly passed National Defense Authorization Act, which codified the powers of the U.S. government to hold suspected al-Qaeda operatives and allies without trial. The act is silent about the rights of American citizens, and critics such as Paul say it will enable the government to claim that it has the right to put American citizens into military detention. But just when he starts to sound more like a Democrat, he’ll come out with a statement, such as the one he made during the Jan. 16 debate, when he was asked what would be the best income tax rate. “Zero,” Paul declared.
Paul’s style is a combination of high-minded and homespun. At his appearances, supporters wave copies of his books—End the Fed and The Revolution: A Manifesto—as well as the Paul Family Cookbook, with its recipes for peanut butter cookies and Velveeta cheese soup. He expounds on the nature of liberty, capital, monetary policy, inflation and Austrian economics. But it’s when he gets to foreign policy that the crowd really goes wild. “The easiest place to cut should be this wild runaway spending overseas,” he says to a standing ovation. “That of course means we’d be bringing home a lot of troops.” Paul receives more campaign donations from active-duty troops than any other candidate.
As the issue of Iran’s nuclear program increasingly preoccupies the White House and the Republican candidates, Paul accuses the other candidates of “warmongering.” He has pointed to the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of negotiations defusing potential conflict, and dismisses talk of war with Tehran. “Why should we be bombing or destabilizing a country that does have a weapon if we could contain the Soviet Union that had 30,000?” he asks.
This is what draws supporters like Paul’s New Hampshire campaign chair, Jim Forsythe, an air force veteran and Republican state senator. “People like me have been frustrated,” said Forsythe at a campaign stop in South Carolina. “We signed up to defend the constitution and I ended up defending Saudi Arabia and supporting a civil war in Bosnia.”
As at Obama’s rallies in the 2008 campaigns, there are many more young people, and more vocal enthusiasm, at Paul campaign events than at those of others. But Forsythe sees a difference: “If you ask who was behind the Obama movement, it was Obama the person. Here, Paul has kept the focus on the ideas.” Robert Lampley, a 50-year-old truck driver from West Columbia, agrees. “It’s a simple message of less government and more freedom,” he says. “I am against the war. He’s the most pro-personal liberty.” If not for Paul, Lampley said he would vote for the ultra-conservative Constitution party. Lampley dismisses other candidates’ warnings that Paul’s foreign policy is dangerous: “They are warmongers,” he says.
Such sentiments explain why Paul is drawing many voters who in 2008 voted for that other anti-war candidate, Obama. And he gives voice to the isolationist and anti-“nation-building” and anti-foreign aid instincts, which have long dwelled among Republicans—think Pat Buchanan—but had been suppressed when Bush was commander-in-chief. Indeed, Paul was one of only six Republicans to vote against the Iraq war. Now he wants to close down U.S. bases abroad and withdraw the United States from the UN and from NATO. “He wants to end the warmongering and bring the troops home,” says Steve Patterson, a 44-year-old chef, one of the Paul supporters who remained outside the tent at Myrtle Beach. “Every other candidate wants to bomb Iran.”
But it’s the foreign policy positions that keep the majority of Republican voters wary of Paul. The most damaging moment for his campaign may have been in the televised debate on Jan. 16, when he was pressed on his view that U.S. forces should not have violated Pakistani sovereignty to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound—and that the al-Qaeda leader should have been tried, not shot. Says Frank McIntosh, an undecided voter: “I like a lot of his ideas, but I’m afraid of some of his views on foreign relations.”
But, while he turns off many in his own party, Paul draws in others from across the political spectrum. “I love everything about Ron Paul—he’s going to give power back to the people and bring the troops home,” said Heather Ashe, a 19-year-old student from Chester, S.C., sporting a tie-dyed shirt. But if Paul doesn’t get the nomination, she’ll vote for Obama because she disagrees with the other Republican candidates on social issues “that are none of the government’s business—like gay rights and abortion.”
Voters like Ashe are the reason many Republicans dismiss Paul’s strong showing in the primaries—he’s drawing independent and Democratic voters. But Forsythe says this is precisely why Paul would be a strong candidate against Obama. “That’s why he’s electable,” he says. In fact, a recent CNN poll found that Paul would tie Obama in a head-to-head match if the election were held today, and Paul bests Obama among independent voters. That’s also what keeps Republicans worried that Paul could run an independent campaign if he loses the nomination. That would draw off disproportionately Republican voters and put some traditionally Republican states into play for Obama, particularly in the Southwest. Paul has said he’s not thinking about a third-party run, and Forsythe says, “I take him at his word.”
Paul has his own baggage that is receiving more attention as his profile grows. In the 1990s he published newsletters under his name that included a variety of racist statements. Paul now says they were written by ghostwriters, and he should have policed them more closely. His supporters want to keep the focus on his ideas. Tom Davis, a South Carolina state senator who endorsed Paul, says, “We need radical surgery, not medicine,” and complains that both Democrats and Republicans have inflated government, carving out loopholes for special interests and corporations. He holds up Paul’s book End the Fed and says, “He’s brought to the forefront ideas that five to six years ago nobody was talking about.”
While Paul may be libertarian in many ways, like all the other GOP candidates he is against abortion. However, he takes the position that abortion is a matter for the states, not the federal government, to decide. And he doesn’t shrink from talking about the Bible when the audience is full of Christian voters. He particularly likes the story of the prophets Isaiah and Elijah, who complained to God no one was listening to their preaching. Paul says that God told Isaiah, “If you are telling the truth, the remnant will find you,” and concludes, “I think there is always somebody out there.”
For now, there are more and more of them out there for Paul—even if they are outside the tent.