COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Stores and restaurants nearby remained darkened, shuttered and without power from an ice storm the ended only hours ago. Few cars were on the roads, save for a peculiarly steady line gingerly easing into the still-glassy Mid-America Center parking lot. Inside nearly 500 Iowans gathered to hear a longtime Republican congressman from Texas nicknamed “Dr. No” break most of the conventions of modern campaigning by promising them less largesse from their government not more and spending more time discussing what he wouldn’t do as president than what he would.
“Thank you for inviting me to your revolution,” Ron Paul announced as an extended, raucous standing ovation finally simmered down. The roaring crowd would no doubt surprise members of his own party as well, many of whom — if the booing and grumbling at Republican debates are any indication — largely view him as little more than a pestering gadfly.
Yet here Paul was, standing before a throng as large as those crowds many of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination draw in similarly sized towns. It is difficult to imagine any candidate save Paul uniting those non-interventionist/anti-war activists who will also cheers calls for dismantling the Federal Reserve with local farmers, lawyers, scruffy college students and earnest young women wearing Prolifers For Ron Paul and Ask Me About Ron Paul buttons, all rising to whoop as one at promises to cut the North American Union off at the pass.
The crowd was brought to its hollering feet at promises to get the U.S. out of the UN, out of NAFTA, out of CAFTA, the WTO, NATO, the IMF… There are moments, truth be told, when a Ron Paul rally can make the John Birch Society look like a committee that might as well be weaving welcome baskets for United Nations delegations.
On television, Paul frequently comes across as a crotchety neighbor, exasperated that the damn federal government keeps kicking its ball into his yard. This night, however, he is warm and at ease, adopting a conversational tone as he leaned casually on the lectern, even telling jokes not so different from those his colleagues crack. The crowd is attentive and animated. When someone asks how many are new to the caucus process, hundreds of hands shoot up.
Not long before Paul took to the dais, I asked him why he thought that after decades of extolling the virtue of these principles — during ten terms in Congress and a 1988 campaign as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, no less — his message was finding a fervent following now.
“I’ve been presenting these views since the Seventies and they were pretty unknown back then,” Paul, who admitted he had initially been “skeptical and reluctant” to make a 2008 run, said. “The most significant change since then has been the education of many, many intellectual leaders in this country in economics and limited government through the study of Austrian economics. The groundwork has been laid…and now comes a time when the failure of the system is becoming very evident. Social Security isn’t working. Foreign policy isn’t working. Taking care of New Orleans didn’t work very well. It’s just that government doesn’t work very well and people are beginning to realize we can’t continue this.”
The fervor of Paulites is undeniable. Many Paul events and fundraisers — including the record-breaking November 5 and December 16 hauls — are dreamed up outside the campaign infrastructure.
“I always marvel at what is happening now because at the beginning of the campaign we were told you have to come up with a logo and make everyone do the same thing,” Paul said. “The main characteristic of our campaign is that everything is different. It’s a lot of creative energy that really shouldn’t have surprised any of us since that’s exactly what I believe in: Individualism with no centralized planning.”
“THE POLITICAL DISCUSSION IN this country now takes place in the arena of fear, not philosophy,” Council Bluffs attorney Aaron Rodenburg told me, as he strode over to a bookcase in his office and ran his finger across Thoreau collections, The Rights of Man and Common Sense before finally falling on The Federalist Papers. He tugged the volume out from behind a brass Abe Lincoln bookend and held it aloft. “Where is this in the debate? We’ve lost track of our constitutional grounding. It’s like people today learn political philosophy from Cliff Notes.”
You would not have had this conversation with Rodenburg in 2004. “There’s a saying you hear a lot — ‘Ron Paul cured my apathy,’ and that’s definitely how I feel,” the lawyer explained. “I was absolutely sickened by the plasticized candidates and the plasticized media with the five-second blitzes they expect us to judge a person by. I was done with it all until I heard about this guy who had a message that was pro-Constitution, a guy who didn’t waver or pander for votes. I scoured his literature pretty good because I was a bit gun-shy, but I finally came to the conclusion that Paul is the real deal.”
Now Ron Paul signs line the windows of Rodenburg’s law firm, alongside a woodland scene with an Abe Lincoln mannequin cavorting with several taxidermied animals. In the small lobby, you can read Ron Paul pamphlets and Democrats for Ron Paul handouts (“Find the true candidate for peace, freedom and ethics in government”) under a giant buffalo head. The Paul campaign has even rented out an empty office in the building, at now-fellow tenant Rodenburg’s urging.
“I’m just a small town lawyer,” he said. “I don’t know how much my opinion is worth, but I work with the Constitution every day. I don’t defend big corporations. I defend ordinary people, and so when I hear someone talking about protecting the individual liberties and rights enshrined in the Constitution it hits me here.”
Rodenburg tapped his chest then, passing a framed illustrated copy of that same document as he showed me out so he could finish his work and get to the Ron Paul rally.
EVEN IF ONE WERE TO OVERLOOK the animosity towards Paul in the party whose nomination he is seeking, it’s fairly clear the country is not ready to elect a strict constitutionalist so long as reporters continue to ask Paul questions like…well: “What’s it mean to be a Constitutionalist?”
The first request made of “Ron Paul Revolution” volunteers on a sheet handed out at the Mid-America Center is “Pray.” And that seems like pretty good advice when Paul is constantly predicting our “fiat monetary system” is set to trigger an almost unavoidable global depression in the not-too-distant future (“Just as the Soviet system collapsed because it was not viable, our system is not viable either because we’re living way beyond our means”) during a race the mainstream conventional wisdom pundits insist will be decided on optimism and likeability.
It is a shame Paul’s relationship with mainstream Republicans has become so (perhaps unavoidably) contentious. Not only is the hard challenge to other candidates’ ideas healthy, but when it comes to the gospel of limited government, Paul also has a particular credibility and flair for describing how each bad, statist decision feeds the next, growing the government beast.
“Now we have a medical-industrial complex,” Paul said, tying the healthcare mess in with our budget problems at large. “Everybody knows about the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us of, but there are so many industries that benefit from what we do in Washington. The system we have today is very divisive because government gets control of our lives, control of the economy and control of our money. And everything goes to Washington.”
The gap between Paul and the GOP certainly won’t be bridged by calling a hard-line approach to Iran “insane,” advocating a swifter Iraq pull-out than most Democrats or suggesting an end to American subsidies for Israel, even if it is along with all Arab nations. Still, Paul seems to recognize Rome won’t be deconstructed in one day. “What we need to have is a renewal in our confidence that freedom works,” he said. This renewal, he said, shouldn’t begin or end with his campaign.
“What freedom does is release creative energy and energizes people,” Paul told the crowd as the speech came to a close. “Not everybody will take care of themselves like they should. Not everybody will be responsible. But when we allow people to become more creative, then we understand the real true purpose in life is to strive for virtue and excellence. We can’t do that with government bearing down on us every single day.”