Astar had just been born when, a day after the May 15 Republicanpresidential debate in South Carolina, I met Texas RepresentativeRon Paul for lunch on Capitol Hill. The meeting had been scheduledfor several days; but, as luck would have it, the previous nightPaul had gone from an oddball obscurity to a major sensation in thepolitical world when, answering a question about September 11, heseemed to suggest that the attacks were justified by an aggressiveU.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. "They attack us becausewe've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for ten years," Paulexplained. The ever-macho Rudy Giuliani was quick to pounce."That's an extraordinary statement," he marveled. "And I would askthe congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn'treally mean that." The crowd roared its approval. A previouslyflagging Giuliani suddenly enjoyed his best moment of the race.
But it was also, oddly enough, Paul's best moment. The response tohis comments was fast and furious: Angry Republicans, including theparty chairman in Michigan, former Senate candidate Michael Steele,and unnamed South Carolina sources cited on Fox News, called forhis exclusion from future debates. Sean Hannity couldn't wait tobully Paul in a post-debate interview. John McCain even added aline to his stump speech bashing him. But the outrage wasinstructive: Suddenly, Republicans were taking seriously a quirky71-year-old Texas libertarian whose national support has hovered inthe zero-percent range.
Nor was the attention all negative. Far from it. Paul won severalinstant polls on the debate, including one at the conservativeNewsmax.com and a Fox News text-message poll. Incredibly, Paul'sname began beating out "Paris Hilton" as the number-one query onthe popular blog-searching website Technorati. (Granted, it'spossible that Paul's fervent supporters are manipulating suchonline metrics.) The incident prompted a feisty exchange among theladies of ABC's "The View," of all places. And, to top it off,within a day of the debate, Paul's campaign had raised$100,000--about one-sixth of his entire haul for the first threemonths of 2007. Paul's spokesman says the campaign headquarters hasbeen "inundated with phone calls" ever since-- 80 percent of themsupportive.
When Paul ambled through the door of a cheap Mexican joint onCapitol Hill last Wednesday, he hardly looked like a freshly mintedcelebrity. His slight frame, elfin face, and reserved personasuggest the doctor he used to be, not a politician. But Paul turnedheads all the same. As he approached his table, a man seated nearbyextended his hand with a broad smile and a hearty"congratulations." Paul explained that he had received a similarreception among his colleagues in the House. "I've had probably tenpeople come up to me and compliment me--including people I thoughtwere war hawks," he said. "It was a tremendous boost to thecampaign."
Who would have expected it? At its outset, Paul's campaign promisedto be a curiosity. The nominee of the Libertarian Party in hisprevious run for the presidency (in 1988), Paul seemed likely toplay a predictable gadfly role-- using his stage time to presshoary libertarian bugaboos like the abolition of Social Security,the legalization of drugs and prostitution, and--Paul's specialobsession--a return to the gold standard. Instead, thanks mainly tohis adamant opposition to the Iraq war, he has assumed a far moreserious role. In a Republican field that has marched in lockstepwith George W. Bush on the war, Paul's libertarian isolationism hasexposed an intraparty fissure over foreign policy that is far widerthan has been acknowledged, encompassing not only disgruntledlibertarians but some paleocons and social conservatives, as wellas such GOP lions as William F. Buckley, George Will, and Bob Novak.As populist-isolationist Pat Buchanan wrote in an op-ed last week,Paul was "speaking intolerable truths. Understandably, Republicansdo not want him back, telling the country how the party blunderedinto this misbegotten war."
Paul, for his part, thinks his view is commonsensical. "This is avery Republican position," he told me. "I just think theRepublicans can't win unless they change their policy on Iraq."
Before Paul became an antiwar hero, his support consisted largely oflibertarian activists--people like Michael Badnarik, the LibertarianParty's 2004 presidential nominee. Badnarik refuses to get adriver's license (even though, he conceded to me, "I have my caroperational") and warns against anyone who might try to force asmallpox or anthrax vaccination on him. ("You bring the syringe,I'll bring my .45, and we'll see who makes a bigger hole.")Badnarik recounts rallying support for Paul at a recent conferenceof the Free State Project, a group of libertarians who haverelocated to New Hampshire in the hope of concentrating their powerand more or less taking over the state government. "I asked howmany people would drive without a license and not pay income taxes,and three-quarters raised their hands," Badnarik recalls. "I'mchoking up. I've got my heart in my throat. And I said, 'We need todo something--and Ron Paul's campaign is the shining star. We needto contribute the full two thousand dollars now. Tell all yourfriends.'"
Pep talks like that helped Paul to raise more than $600,000 overallin the first quarter of 2007--a pittance compared with the topcandidates, but more than several better-known competitors,including former GOP governors Tommy Thompson, Mike Huckabee, andJim Gilmore. With the help of the Free State Project, Paul actuallyplaced second in money raised in New Hampshire, ahead of Giulianiand McCain and trailing only Mitt Romney.
But libertarians are a fractious bunch, and some hardcore activistshave mixed feelings about the man now carrying their banner. Forinstance, libertarian purists generally support a laissez-fairegovernment attitude toward abortion and gay marriage, as well as"open border" immigration policies and unfettered free trade. YetPaul opposes gay marriage, believes states should outlaw abortion,decries high immigration rates, and has called himself "sort of" aprotectionist. (These divergences may be explained by Paul'ssocially conservative East Texas district, which lies adjacent toTom DeLay's former district and which President Bush last carriedwith 67 percent of the vote. Being pro-choice simply doesn't flythere.)
As a result, Paul's candidacy leaves some of his erstwhilelibertarian fans cold--particularly the intellectuals whocongregate in Washington outfits like the cato Institute or Reasonmagazine. "He comes from a more right-wing populist approach,"explains Brian Doherty, a California-based Reason editor and authorof Radicals for Capitalism, a history of the libertarian movement."Culturally, he strikes a lot of the more cosmopolitan libertariansas a yokel. " (Doherty himself is a Paul admirer.)
And, while some libertarians criticize Paul from the left on socialissues, others are swiping at him from the right over the war."Will Libertarianism Survive Ron Paul?" asked one article on theAmerica's Future Foundation website, before continuing, "Paul'sprominence threatens to make his blame-America instincts thedefining characteristic of libertarianism in the publicimagination. If libertarianism becomes inextricably associated withradical pacifism, will young people with classically liberalinstincts be discouraged from serious political engagement?"
Paul's provocations have roiled the waters back home as well. Afterthe fateful debate, the largest paper in Paul's district ran astory headlined, "some say paul should resign." More ominously, aformer longtime aide, Eric Dondero, is now planning to knock hisformer boss out of Congress in 2008. A self-described BarryGoldwater-style "pro-military libertarian," Dondero first workedfor Paul during his 1988 presidential campaign and finally left hisoffice three years ago. He says it was bad enough begging Paul tosupport the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing militaryforce in Afghanistan. But Paul's September 11 moment in the debatewas the final straw. The next day, Dondero posted a blog item onRedState.com declaring his intention to unseat his one-time hero."One of the really bad things about his piss-poor [debate]performance," Dondero told me, "is that now everyone in the countryis going to think that all libertarians think the same way that hedoes."
Paul seems only to relish his newfound notoriety. "I enjoy dealingin the area of ideas," he told me over lunch. "And I want to make adifference." Paul also carries with him a certainty that he will bevindicated--and not just on Iraq. He is utterly convinced, forinstance, that the United States is headed for an economic disasterthat can only be averted by the adoption of the gold standard, atopic that has obsessed him for years. When I ask him why, at 71,he's putting himself through the ordeal of a national campaign,this--not Iraq-- is the point to which he returns: "If there's aneconomic collapse," he says almost wistfully, "maybe I'll be in theright place at the right time." It's another slogan not suited fora bumper sticker, and another you would only hear from Ron Paul.