At 10:40 on the morning of the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul entered the brightly lit gymnasium of Valley High School in West Des Moines surrounded by so many reporters thrusting so many recording devices into the airspace around his head that neither he nor his son Rand, the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky, could see the stage in the center of the gym’s sparkling parquet floor. As the cluster gradually advanced, amoeba-like, the director of MTV’s Rock the Vote, which was hosting the event, introduced Paul to an audience of perhaps five hundred juniors and seniors, which is to say all of Valley High’s new or soon-to-be-eligible voters. It was a good crowd. Michele Bachmann, who opened the morning’s program, had been greeted enthusiastically (“Who here wants to make a lot of money?” she shouted), while Mitt Romney’s four tall, handsome sons garnered polite attention. But when Paul finally reached the microphone, the applause was thunderous and sustained.
Paul, who is 76 and finally beginning to look a bit frail after some 35 years as a standard-bearer for the libertarian wing of the Republican party, quickly turned philosophical, musing about his recent surge in popularity with the millennial generation. “I don’t know the exact reason for it,” he told the students. “I defend the Constitution constantly in Washington, and that’s very appealing to young people. Sometimes the two parties mesh together, and it’s not too infrequent that I feel obligated to vote by myself. And when [young people] see that, they say, ‘He won’t go back and forth and will always stick to principle.’ ”
Paul has run for president twice before and has given a version of this same speech hundreds of times in his career, but he had never enjoyed a moment quite like this crisp January morning in West Des Moines. After decades spent in the political wilderness, he was polling dead even with fellow front-runners Romney and Rick Santorum in the first nominating contest of a wide-open Republican primary season. He was far ahead of his much-better-known fellow Texan, Rick Perry, despite the millions the governor had spent in Iowa, and was also sure to beat a resurgent Newt Gingrich. Even if he didn’t win the caucus outright, Paul had a top-three spot locked up, which meant that the media, never quite sure what to make of Paul, were finally treating him with respect. A growing chorus of pundits on the cable news channels praised his prolific grassroots fund-raising, his strong organization, and the loyalty and energy of his supporters, which he seems to have in abundance in every state.
What a difference a campaign cycle makes. In May 2007 I watched from an auditorium balcony as Paul was ritually sacrificed in front of five hundred of the Republican party faithful at a presidential primary debate in South Carolina. Then, as now, the GOP field was crowded with faces both familiar—like John McCain, Romney, and Rudy Giuliani—and less recognizable, among them the mild-mannered congressman from Lake Jackson, who was known outside his district in those days by only a scattering of libertarians around the country. Ignored by the Fox News moderators for much of the night, Paul thrust himself into the spotlight by suggesting, as the discussion turned to foreign affairs, that the 9/11 attacks had been a predictable response to our interventionist policy in the Middle East. Giuliani—still clinging to the “America’s Mayor” label almost six years after the tragedy that had made him a household name—ripped into Paul as the crowd roared its approval. Afterward, in the spin room, a throng of reporters offered Paul the opportunity to end his candidacy or apologize to the American people, neither of which he accepted. His evening was topped off by four minutes of live, on-air haranguing by Fox News’ Sean Hannity.
In those days, nobody wanted to hear what Paul had to say, not on foreign affairs and not on domestic policy either. Throughout the campaign, his screeds against the Federal Reserve System, his opposition to farm subsidies and corporate welfare, and his apocalyptic pronouncements about the coming bankruptcy of America fell mostly on deaf ears. He finished fifth in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and his campaign faded into irrelevance.
Four years later, Giuliani is rowing through the backwaters of the motivational speaking circuit, McCain is a grumbling presence in the Senate, and Paul stands at the fulcrum of a profoundly fractured Republican party. Having never truly ended his last campaign, and having clung tenaciously to the same contrarian ideas for decades, Paul has emerged as perhaps the most steadfast candidate in a field of constant flux. No moment was more emblematic of Paul’s new stature than the spectacle of the former pariah taking pity on Perry during the governor’s own debate nightmare, in November, when he inexplicably forgot the name of one of the three federal bureaucracies he had just promised to shutter if he reached the Oval Office. As Perry flailed and floundered, Paul, standing just to Perry’s left, gamely tried to fill the awkward silence. “It’s not three, it’s five,” he quipped, referring to his own plan to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget. Alas, there was no saving Perry, nor was there any escaping the takeaway from his disastrous evening: the ideas underlying his campaign would be much easier for him to remember if they were his own.
This is a problem that Ron Paul has never had to worry about. His political philosophy has not changed since his first term in Congress, in 1976. In fact, many of the ideas in Perry’s anti-government manifesto Fed Up!—such as the possibility of eliminating huge portions of the federal government—seem to have been cribbed from Paul’s voluminous writings. When Perry questions the constitutionality of Social Security and the federal income tax, he is channeling vintage Paul. That Perry would embrace such radical notions speaks volumes about how Paul has managed to climb up from the lower rungs of the conservative caste system over the past four years.