MINNEAPOLIS — As the Republican National Convention was getting back on track from its hurricane delay, supporters of former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul came together for a different kind of event — part shadow convention, part rock concert, part alternate reality where the libertarian Texas congressman won the Republican nomination, and entirely aimed at keeping over a million Paul voters mobilized.
The only question is: mobilized to do what exactly? More or less shut out of the main event, organizers of the Rally for the Republic sold over 10,000 tickets at $17.76 apiece. With Tucker Carlson serving as emcee, the speakers ranged from presidential historian Doug Wead to the president of the John Birch Society. “We have brought everyone together from the hardcore Christian right to the hardcore libertarians and beyond,” John Tate of Paul’s Campaign for Liberty told me.
If there was any division in the ranks of the Paulistas, it was over one key tactical question: to work within the Republican Party or outside of it. Rally-goers booed and hissed almost any mention of the proceedings across the river in St. Paul, though their catcalls were louder whenever Sean Hannity’s face appeared on the big screen. But many of those present, some of them convention delegates, were also wearing t-shirts that said, “Calling the GOP back to its roots.”
This division played out on the dais as well in the hall. Lew Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of the eponymous libertarian website, railed against the Bush administration. “Bush was going to create ‘an ownership society,'” said Rockwell. “Some commentators were stupid enough to believe that this meant that he would privatize things and give back control to the people. To those who bought this line, I have only this to say: You got owned.”
Many Republicans in good standing are willing to criticize the compassionate conservatism and big-government Republicanism of George W. Bush, but Rockwell didn’t stop there. “I for one no longer believe that Bush has betrayed conservatives, he said. “In fact, he has fulfilled conservatism, by completing the redefinition of the term that began many decades ago with Bill Buckley and National Review.” Conservatism, Rockwell elaborated, “stands for spying, jailing without trial, torture, counterfeiting without limit, and lying from morning to night.”
Bill Kauffman, author of a recent history of the antiwar right, was less down on conservatism proper (though he did warn that the “old labels” could become “prison cells”) but had few kind words for living Republicans not named Ron Paul. “Should a revivified Robert Taft appear tonight to speak at the Excel Center,” Kauffman said, “he would be booed as fervently as the sanctimonious warmonger Joe Lieberman is cheered.”
Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura told a cheering crowd to forget about the two major parties. “Voting isn’t a horse race where you go in and pick a winner,” he said. “Voting is when you listen to your heart and your conscience.” When you do that, Ventura argued, “don’t let any Democrat or Republican tell you that you’ve wasted your vote.”
Ventura heaped praise on two Texans who have run third-party presidential campaigns — the 1988 Libertarian Party nominee who was his host and Ross Perot, his onetime rival within the Reform Party. He also inveighed against the Commission on Presidential Debates, which he said was created to ensure that nothing like Perot’s 1992 debate performances ever happen again.
Then Ventura tiptoed up to 9/11 trutherism by asking why the federal government has never formally charged Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks on American soil. The truthers in the audience picked up the signal. “Because there’s no evidence!” a young woman shouted. A small but vocal contingent started chanting, “Inside job! Inside job!” A middle-aged man in a Paul for president t-shirt muttered, “Oh s–t, not these a–holes.”
While the potential 2012 presidential candidate descended into the fever swamps, others tried to sell a political strategy for shrinking the federal government. Grover Norquist received a warm reception as he made the case for his Leave Us Alone coalition. Norquist praised the Republicans for keeping their commitment not to raise taxes “on the national level” for the past 15 years, but criticized them on spending.
Doug Wead, a veteran of the first Bush administration, was also applauded when he appealed to the party of Taft: “I say to the Republicans across the river, come home, come back. This is where you started, these are your roots. Join the campaign for liberty.” Another former governor, Republican Gary Johnson of New Mexico, talked about his record of wielding the veto pen, cutting taxes and spending, and promoting school choice.
Barry Goldwater Jr., the former Republican congressman from California and son of Mr. Conservative (to whom he bears a striking resemblance), criticized the Republicans’ abandonment of first principles but suggested in his introduction of Paul that the movement for small government had a home within the GOP. Goldwater cited his father’s 1960 admonition to the right: “Grow up conservatives. We can take this party back.”
Although Paul’s pitch for ending the war in Iraq, repealing the Patriot Act, and legalizing drugs would have been out of place at the convention in St. Paul, much of his speech seemed like the GOP platform on steroids. He criticized the teaching of Keynesian economics, complained that tax cuts shouldn’t be counted as a cost to the government, called for abolishing the Department of Education, and argued that needs aren’t the same as rights. Free-market types wearing shirts that said, “Gold is money,” began chanting, “End the Fed! End the Fed!”
On the question of parties, however, Paul was agnostic. “I work within the Republican Party,” he said matter-of-factly, but his supporters should let a thousand flowers bloom. The “revolution,” he argued, must be bigger than any political party. Fair enough. It also might need a more detailed plan to make it into a coherent movement bigger than one man.