Can an exception rule? The case of Rep. Ron Paul.
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As one out of 435, this can be an easily ignored peccadillo; on the committee level it can be a problem. Some of the Education and Workforce crew are exasperated with Paul’s “no, no, never, no” attitude. “It’s largely moderates on that committee,” one congressional staffer says. “So they are thinking, how can we leverage federal dollars to make education better, while Ron’s like, What do we need public schools for? It gets frustrating trying to move things through committee. Squishy Republicans might not vote with the chair for one reason, and Paul doesn’t for different reasons.”
Indeed, as libertarian-leaning GOP coalition builder and TAS columnist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform says, one Ron Paul is grand; and 218 Ron Pauls would be even grander; but 20 Ron Pauls could cripple the party, since the usual half-steps toward less government and less taxation might not find support among the more ideologically rigorous.
“Some Republicans don’t work with the rest of the gang because they are being jerks, or playing to the home team, or being weak,” Norquist says. “Ron is understood to be acting on principle. But he does take principled positions that sometimes cause the leadership heartache because they need to pass less-bad bills, and they can’t count on his vote to do that.”
WHAT GOOD IS A Ron Paul in Congress, even for his fervent supporters? Tom Lizardo, Paul’s chief of staff, is quick to point out that one out of 435 is worth more than a mere 1/435; that his very presence often means the difference between one and zero, which is a very big difference indeed. Paul’s Banking Committee colleague Jack Metcalf agrees; Paul is a lodestar of principle, and Metcalf thinks that even if Paul’s radical ideas go nowhere now, “one of the jobs here in Congress should be to lay ground and point the way for the future.” Metcalf thinks Paul’s electoral success could teach other GOPers who might approach his seriousness about limited government philosophically that being a committed ideologue for liberty needn’t mean electoral suicide.
Indeed, despite the fact that most of his constituents might not really want to, say, end the Cuban trade embargo, Paul’s a popular congressman, turning his 51 percent in ‘96 into 55 in ‘98. His firm statement of principles, and the way he sticks to them, cuts through the usual cynicism about politicians. Paul’s steadfastness protects him from nettling harassment to change his position on this or that, just this once. “Those who go back and forth face pressure I don’t,” Paul notes. “Lobbying can get heavy when they know you are flexible — you know, you bend your stances all the time, why not this time?” Paul also proves that the promise of getting government off your back can be as appealing as government giveaways. Paul taps into a streak of Texas populism, which can manifest itself in an LBJ-like “make government do for the little guy” attitude, or a more Lone Rangeresque respect for the rugged individualist. Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn is an unlikely Paul booster for his stances on issues like privacy arid Waco. Cockburn says he’s “always had a soft spot for Texas populists.”When asked what he didn’t like about Paul, Cockburn could only say, “his reverence for gold is a little excessive.”
Paul has been a public leader in the fight against know-your-customer banking regulations, his most high-profile accomplishment. But as legislator qua legislator, he doesn’t have a lot to show. Perhaps the Ron-for-President people are right: The bully pulpit of a national campaign might be worth more to a consistent ideologue than one seat out of 435. But perhaps, specific success or no, one Ron Paul is very valuable to a GOP that professes a belief in getting government off the people’s backs. As Norquist notes, “Ron provides an articulate vision of where we are trying to get to. Reagan used to provide that for the party, and we haven’t had enough of it recently.”
Brian Doherty is the Warren Brookes Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
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