Eminentoes

A Principled Maverick

Can an exception rule? The case of Rep. Ron Paul.

By From the November 1999 issue

In Congress party discipline is vital. Leadership craves a tight ship where all hands can be counted on to row in the same direction. So many congressmen bridled when, after stressing the need for everyone to pull together to get a conference bill through, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich invoked a "Ron Paul exemption," granting the gentleman from Texas's sprawling 14th District a hassle-free bye on the vote.

This story is part of the growing legend of Ron Paul, the Exceptional Republican. Though his name rarely appears in the national press, and his face almost never on Sunday morning news shows, in 1996 he was third only to Gingrich and Bob Dornan in individual contributions to Republican House candidates. While he hasn't managed to get any of his own bills out of committee since re-entering the House in January 1997, he's considered a vital asset by a large national constituency of libertarians, goldbugs, and constitutionalists. He's defied one of the holy shibboleths of electoral politics -- Thou Must Bring Home the Bacon -- by being a consistent opponent of agricultural subsidies in a largely agricultural district, and he's still won twice in a row.

Ron Paul has been defying standard political rules since he first won an off-term House election in 1976 -- a post-Watergate year when new Republicans weren't widely embraced. He lost the regular election in '76, but came back to win in '78, '8o, and '82, then left the House for an ill-fated go at the Senate seat won by Phil Gramm.

He capitalized on the support he'd won among devotees of hard money and very limited government and worked on a newsletter, coin business, and his own think tank. He also returned to the medical practice he'd left behind. He ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1988. He was a hero to a national constituency of hard-core skeptics about the State -- the one successful politician who was always steadfast even on the less-popular aspects of the live-free-or-die libertarian philosophy. He'd talk about ending the federal drug war when speaking to high school students. In 1985, he spent his own money to fly and testify on behalf of one of the first draft-registration defiers to go to trial, not blanching when confronted with the hot-blooded youngster's use of the phrase "Smash the State." He might not use that verb, the sober obstetrician and family man said, but from his first-hand experience with how the U.S. government disrespects its citizens' natural liberties, he could under- stand the sentiments.

Being against draft registration isn't so radical these days -- 232 House members voted to end it this year. But Paul, whose cardinal rule in politics is, If it isn't clearly authorized by the Constitution, don't vote for it, can always be counted on to explore the most exotic frontiers in defense of small government. Since returning to Congress, he's introduced bills to eliminate the Federal Reserve, withdraw from the United Nations, and repeal the entire body of antitrust law. Paul embraces the term "noninterventionist" to describe himself -- "no government intervention, not in personal life, not in economic life, not in affairs of other nations." (He was staunchly against U.S. military adventures in Kosovo and Iraq.) His constitutionalism sometimes leaves the Air Force vet flying solo, the one vote against the House. He was the solo opponent to granting Rosa Parks the Congressional Medal of Honor (no offense to the fine lady, but the Constitution authorizes no such actions or expenditures); against the latest law about computerized child-support records; and against the most recent reauthorization of the Child Nutrition and WIC program.

His intransigence leaves him more respected than mocked; most of his colleagues express admiration for him as a person and a principled politician, even if they'd never dream of going his way on his pet issues. But in a go-along to get-along atmosphere like Congress, where does being a principled maverick get you?

In Paul's case, it got him one committee assignment he wanted -- Banking. Banking and monetary issues are Paul's main political passions. His early interest in politics was sparked by the libertarian economics of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. He heeds their lesson that inflation is a monetary phenomenon. Just because the consumer price index isn't rising doesn't mean inflation isn't a problem. Paul sees the recent stock market boom as an inflationary bubble. He warned Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan during one of his appearances before the Banking Committee that he might want to get out while the getting's good, sterling reputation intact. He thinks Greenspan's Ayn Randian-libertarian background means Greenspan probably suspects what Paul knows: The bubble will soon burst.

His maverick stance also got him one committee assignment he didn't want -- Education and Workforce, in lieu of the International Relations he craved. "Education is where they figured I could do the least harm," Paul says. He thinks his opposition to all foreign aid under any circumstances blocked him from International Relations. And maverick or not, he still has the congressional bully pulpit from which to express opinions that would not be aired in Congress were he not there, like his declaration that he, and many Americans, had reason to fear being bombed by their own government in the wake of Waco.

His national constituency loves him for it. Most of his personal contributions come from outside his district, nearly 15,000 fans across the nation willing to open up their wallets for his sake. Some eager acolytes from Illinois launched a Web-based campaign encouraging Paul to run for president as a third-party fusion candidate on both the Libertarian and Reform Party tickets. While this effort has so far received scant attention, it isn't entirely out of left field. Eric Dubiel, mastermind of the effort, was inspired by Reform Party Chairman-elect Jack Gargan's suggestion that Paul would be a great Reform candidate.

Paul's office denies any interest on Ron's part, though he's flattered. One Paul insider insists Gargan has called Paul numerous times to discuss Reform possibilities. Gargan, as a party leader who should be above nomination fights, cagily denies any special interest in a Paul candidacy, despite telling Reuters that Paul was "at the top of my list."

Still, it isn't likely to happen. Even if it did, it would doubtless make no dent in the two-party political machine. Burgeoning national cult aside, Ron Paul is still one of 435, and a misfit within his own party.

PAUL WAS SLAPPED in the face with his lack of standing in 1996 when he challenged recently turncoated former Democrat Greg Laughlin for the GOP nomination for the 14th District, a monser district stretching from Texas’s Gulf Coat over 22,000 square miles skirting the Austin, Houston, and San Antonio metro areas. The Republican Party came out in force for Laughlin, with big National Republican Congressional Committee support, personal appearances by everyone from Newt Gingrich to both George Bushes, and a nasty campaign implying Paul would support heroin in public schools, if only he believed in public schools. Paul thinks such outside interference helped him raise his unusually high, for a House race, $2 million in '96. "Every time someone from Washington came down here, I'd send out another fundraising letter and get another $100,000."

Nowadays, both Paul and GOP leaders deny any animus was involved, though Paul still makes asides about "establishment Republicans [who] want to dance on my political grave" in his fundraising letters. The official explanation is that the GOP craved Democratic defections, and needed to prove the party would go to bat for them. At the time, though, Laughlin insisted that "Republicans who have worked with Paul are appalled he is in this race. When they hear about his wacko ideas, they get even more concerned."

Paul insists there are no hard feelings, and it's hard to find GOP colleagues who will openly say bad things about him as person or legislator. Still, he isn't much of a coalition-builder. Mike Holmes, a Texan and treasurer of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which supports and advocates more libertarian-leaning Republicans of Paul's ilk, thinks Paul is a victim of his past as a complete outlier in the Congress of the late 70's and early 8o's. "Ron's not the type to reach out with other congressmen and form alliances. He crafts legislation and it goes to committee and gets squashed. He doesn't want to work the back rooms of Congress. Since he's not into patronage and pork, he lacks the motivation to make these deals. Congress isn't made up of individualist heroes, it's made up of deal brokers."

It's hard to see what kind of deals Paul could make on bills such as the one he proposed to abolish the Fed. Jim Leach, chairman of the Banking Committee, says Paul is "perhaps the most philosophically thoughtful and personally decent member of Congress. We don't vote the same way, but he's the nicest guy around." Bill Goodling, the Education and Workforce chairman, says -- and one can almost see the bemused smile between the lines of his written statement -- that Paul "has brought a different perspective to the Committee.... [H]e sticks to his own moral compass, and political considerations do not influence his decisions on how to vote.... He is very predictable: If proposed legislation expands government or involves activities which he does not consider specifically authorized by the Constitution, then he will vote No."

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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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).