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The Ron Paul Phenomenon

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The biggest news to come out of the Ron Paul campaign last week was that the campaign raised $5.08 million during the third quarter of this year. That’s not the $27 million that Hillary raised or even the $6 million or $7 million (on top of $10 million from others) that Mitt Romney donated to himself from his personal fortune. But it’s real money, even in national presidential politics.

A week before the end of the reporting period the Paul campaign challenged supporters to donate $500,000 by Sept. 30. They did that in three days, so the campaign increased the challenge to $1 million. Piece of cake. By the end of the day Paul supporters had donated more than $1.2 million. The campaign reports that it has $5.3 million in hand as the candidates prepare for actual primaries rather than just debates and straw polls.

John McCain, who is much more prominent and used to be considered in the top tier of candidates, raised about the same amount over the third quarter, but he still has several million in debts. Mike Huckabee, viewed by much of the media as the only second-tier GOP candidate with a chance to break through because of his religious-right roots, raised a paltry $1 million.

Ron Paul may be the candidate who breaks through. Whatever happens, his campaign has turned into the most significant pro-freedom mass movement in modern American history, perhaps in all of our history. Early on he was viewed as strictly an Internet candidate because he usually dominated the "who won?" polls on cable TV Web sites after Republican debates. That could be dismissed as a function of Net-savvy libertarians spamming the polling sites.

As debates and other events started to take place, however, it turned out that the campaign was also able to turn out "boots on the ground" – large crowds of enthusiastic supporters of all ages and descriptions, including college students, young families, aging Goldwaterites and Reaganites, hippies and bikers. At joint events, people started to notice that the Ron Paul Revolution signs seemed to outnumber the signs of all the other candidates combined. When Paul was excluded from a GOP debate in Iowa his supporters came out for a predebate speech and rally, and, without disrupting the actual debate inside, dominated the event.

Last weekend he held a rally in New Hampshire attended by about 800 people – the largest crowd any candidate has turned out to date in that state. After listening to him speak (and getting all of them who weren’t duly registered to vote), the troops dispersed to the three major cities in New Hampshire to knock on doors. They hit 12,000 households in New Hampshire that day.

A Paul supporter and blogger from Pittsburgh who attended the rally told an interesting story. He had come to sell T-shirts to help finance what he hopes will be several hundred Pennsylvanians busing to New Hampshire the week of the primary to work for Paul. Toward the end of the rally a fellow who had been hanging around the table came over and plunked down a big wad of cash. He told them he wanted to be anonymous, but he wanted to buy a Ron Paul T-shirt for every child in the crowd (about 50) and have volunteers hand them out. Turns out he had already given the maximum $2,300 to the actual campaign, but he goes to campaign events and looks for other ways to help out.

That illustrates an aspect of the volunteer, grass-roots nature of the Paul campaign that may well be worth more than the $5 million in formal donations the campaign raised last quarter. Lew Rockwell, proprietor of the popular libertarian Web site LewRockwell.com, told me that whenever he’s been to a Paul campaign event, he sees at least a dozen different kinds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons and the like being sold or given away – "nice stuff, not homemade schlock" – by local Paul volunteers.

Kent Snyder, Ron Paul’s campaign manager, told me that as of Wednesday (the numbers are undoubtedly higher now), Ron Paul has 29,489 YouTube subscribers, and YouTube videos featuring Ron Paul have attracted 4,339,507 views. Barack Obama has attracted more views (11,197,523) but has only 11,264 subscribers. Among the other Republicans, Mitt Romney is second, with 3,076 subscribers and 784,640 views, followed by Rudy Giuliani (2,467 and 655,000) and McCain (1,631 and 483,174).

Hillary Clinton has 6,089 subscribers and 926,547 views. (Numbers for all candidates for Facebook, MySpace and YouTube are available, updated daily, at www.techpresident.com.)

As of Wednesday, Snyder says, there were 49,928 Ron Paul MeetUp supporters in 771 cities in 22 countries (including one in the Green Zone in Baghdad). So far they have held 7,671 events, ranging from a few people meeting at somebody’s kitchen table to speeches and rallies. As of the most recent report, according to USA Today, Paul had raised more money from active members of the military than any other Republican. Whom do the troops support?

The Paul campaign has evolved into "a self-directed, decentralized organization full of people who take the initiative locally," Rockwell told me. He believes that the movement will continue, whatever happens electorally, and that’s a good portent for the future of freedom. He notes that especially the young supporters seem interested in reading and learning about freedom as well as attending rallies.

So how did a 72-year-old grandfather who is self-effacing and slender to the point of looking frail on television (he doesn’t in person) become the closest thing to a rock star the Republicans have produced, swarmed for autographs at every appearance? Raised in Pittsburgh, Ron Paul attended Duke medical school, served in the Air Force, and began practicing medicine (he’s an OB-GYN) near Houston. Along the way he started reading writers like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek and became a strong supporter of free-market economics and the gold standard.

He supported Reagan for president in 1976 and was elected to Congress the same year, which is when I first met him (I was living in the D.C. area and was assigned by the long-defunct magazine Conservative Digest to do a profile shortly after Paul entered Congress).

His practice in Congress has been to ask himself, before each vote, whether this is a program specifically authorized by the Constitution. If the answer is no, he opposes it – including funding for NASA when NASA was in his district. This has earned him the nickname, "Dr. No."

After an unsuccessful run at a Texas Senate seat in a 1982 primary won by Phil Gramm, he returned to medicine for a while and was the 1988 presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, where he pulled the usual 1 percent or so. Afterward he ran for Congress again, and despite a couple of efforts by the Texas Republican establishment to knock him off in the primary, he has won reelection ever since.

His most significant issue in this campaign is the war in Iraq. He is the only one of the active candidates (besides Democrat Dennis Kucinich) to vote against authorization to use force in Iraq, though he had approved the military incursion into Afghanistan after 9/11. He uses Iraq – 70 percent of the American people now believe the Iraq war was a mistake – to broaden the discussion, arguing for a noninterventionist foreign policy that would involve bringing our troops home from Korea, Germany, Japan and elsewhere, and minding our own business.

He also believes the income tax should be abolished, government made significantly smaller, and that the Federal Reserve should be abolished, with the country returning to a gold standard rather than printing fiat money. He is staunchly pro-life and seldom misses a chance to denounce the war on drugs, which he believes is unconstitutional.

This is a frankly radical platform, much more radical than Barry Goldwater’s in an earlier era. Why has it attracted such enthusiastic support?

Part of the reason, Rockwell believes, is that economists and other intellectuals have been building the case for a free economy and free society since the 1930s, and there’s a critical mass of people who have studied freedom and support it. Add to that the Internet and other forms of communication that have allowed people who might have felt alone in their beliefs to communicate with and get to know others of like mind. And we’ve had six-plus years of a Republican presidency that has not only been aggressive militarily but has increased domestic spending and started new federal programs, leaving many traditional Republicans feeling abandoned.

Perhaps as important as the ideas, which are at the heart of the Paul campaign, is the man himself. Ron Paul is not a great orator, though he does well enough in debates and interviews. But his low-key manner may have its own appeal. He doesn’t shout or gesticulate, but he doesn’t back away from what he believes. He presents radical ideas in a low-key, unthreatening manner, and people seem to sense a certain unyielding integrity. Whether they agree with him or not, people sense that he really believes what he is saying rather than delivering the latest focus-group-tested message.

Will people actually vote for such a political oddity once they get into the privacy of the voting booth? We’ll know in a few months.

October 8, 2007

Alan Bock [send him mail] is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge and Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana.