ARLINGTON, Virginia -- It's not unusual to see 300 young professionals and college students lined up trying to get into a Clarendon bar and grille on a Thursday evening. But last week, the crowd wasn't there (just) for a night of beers and camaraderie -- they had come out to see Ron Paul, the ten-term Texas congressman and maverick candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Also on hand were camera crews from ABC News and C-Span. Nobody seemed more surprised by the attention than the candidate himself. "I asked how many people belonged to this club," he told the mostly standing-room anti-statists, "and they said 'oh, about 35 people.' I'm used to speaking for little groups of 35 people."
Now Paul is getting used to speaking to crowds as large as the 2,000 people who came out to hear him talk about fiat money -- no joke -- and foreign policy at Michigan State. There's hardly an Internet poll he hasn't won and his campaign beat expectations by raising nearly $5.1 million in the third quarter, putting Paul within a Mike Huckabee of John McCain. If Paul isn't yet a frontrunner, he is at least a cult favorite.
Paul is much more at ease in front of a friendly audience than at the Republican presidential debates, where he must answer questions with Rudy Giuliani cackling in the background and trade elbows with his more hawkish rivals over the Iraq war. He smiles cheerfully and even shows flashes of wry humor. ("We're not going to get rid of the Federal Reserve in a day -- it'll take two or three days.")
And Paul couldn't have asked for a friendlier audience. The event was organized by the Robert Taft Club, a group of young, D.C.-based paleoconservatives (full disclosure: I was paid a modest fee to speak at a past meeting). They applauded each time he called for abolishing a government program or closing a military base overseas, and prefaced questions with, "When you become president..."
Paul's real goal may be even more audacious than trying to get to the White House -- reviving an older conservatism that is more skeptical of military interventions and restoring the Robert Taft wing of the Republican Party. Paul admits that the latter more or less died with Senator Taft during the Eisenhower administration, though he sees the Facebook friends who come out to support him on the campaign trail as proof it can be resurrected.
Even Congress's libertarian happy antiwarrior must know this is a tall order. In a year where the Republican primary ballot will feature a tax-cutting pro-choicer and a tax-hiking pro-lifer, Paul could have plausibly run as a fusionist candidate. An implacable foe of both the IRS and abortion, he would shutter more federal agencies than Republicans dared dream in 1994 while marrying social conservatism to consistent federalism.
Paul praises his following as "diverse," but says they can get along because they "want to leave each other alone," a throwback to the pro-gun, anti-tax Leave Us Alone coalition that has since been supplanted by national greatness conservatism. He animatedly invokes the Constitution and American Revolution as he promises, "I don't want to run your life. I don't want to run the economy... I don't know how."
BUT THE BIGGGEST SINGLE driver of Paul's support in this campaign is also what limits his appeal to conventional Republicans -- his passionate opposition to the Iraq war and what he describes as the "illegal, unwise, unconstitutional military adventurism" of the Bush administration. The title of his talk was "A Conservative Foreign Policy," but no amount of readings from Taft or Russell Kirk can alter the fact that most people who today call themselves conservatives would regard Paul's preferred foreign policy as naive, even dangerous.
In addition to withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as possible, Paul would shed American commitments in Europe, Asia, and throughout the world, spending the savings at home -- as a down payment on the transition costs away from the welfare state. He casually drops the phrase "military-industrial complex," which, though used by Eisenhower, is usually associated with the post-McGovern left. What many Republicans consider essential to U.S. security in an age of terrorism, Paul dismisses as "war propaganda."
For this reason, GOP presidential candidates have been quick to use Paul as a foil for demonstrating their own toughness. And Paul's backers don't much like the rest of the field. Anti-Giuliani cracks abounded; a South Carolina supporter urged Paul to challenge Huckabee to a fight for questioning the Texan's commitment to national security. Paul beamed but demurred, saying, "I sorta like nonviolence." Asked what his administration would do to help rebuild Iraq, Paul said he'd favor such expenditures if he could only tax "the neocons" and "war supporters" to pay for them.
Since that taxable group still includes a majority of Republicans, can Paul gain traction? His supporters hope for a breakthrough in New Hampshire, which has a libertarian streak, or Iowa, where according to one poll 51 percent of Republicans want to leave Iraq within six months.
Basking in the applause of intense young paleos and libertarians, Paul didn't seem worried about what would happen to his own campaign. "I am not the greatest orator," he acknowledged. "But this is the greatest message."
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