Republican congressman Ron Paul of Surfside says no to PAC contributions. He says no to pork barrel spending for his district. He says no to honoring Mother Teresa. And he has no influence in Washington. So why do the Democrats have no chance of beating him?
Imagine, for a moment, the perfect congressman. Though he works in Washington, D.C., a city of shameless opportunism, shifting allegiances, and flannel-mouthed pieties, he is both deeply principled and wholly uncompromised. He does not bend with the political winds. He does not take money from corporate PACs. Lobbyists cannot sway him; to try is a waste of time. He never bargains with his own deeply held beliefs, nor does he cut backroom deals. Because his political views and his personal convictions are in complete harmony, he seldom faces a “tough” vote. And when the politicking for the week is over, he returns to his district to take up his lifelong occupation, which has nothing to do with politics.
This, of course, sounds like unalloyed fantasy; no one who clung so tenaciously—or so naively—to his beliefs would last in Washington. The grizzled old pols who run the place would grind him up and sprinkle him on their pecan-encrusted mahimahi for dinner. But there is such a man. Whether he is perfect or not is a matter for debate, as you will see, but the plain fact is that a congressman named Ron Paul, a 66-year-old Republican who represents Texas’ 14th Congressional District, otherwise fits this description exactly. The phrase “honest politician” is an oxymoron; yet in the sense that Paul never, ever votes against his stated principles—which are libertarian and include the belief that much of our federal government, from the IRS to the Department of Education, and the massive taxes that support it, should be abolished—the phrase describes him.
Wait. There’s more. The same beliefs that cause him to vote against every single appropriations bill in Congress also carry over to his private life. He intends, for example, to refuse his congressional pension. He would not let his children take out federally subsidized education loans. He actually returns money each year from his congressional office—some $50,000 last year. “I have always thought that there are two brands of conservatives: the kind who follow the money and conservatives of principle,” says Ronnie Dugger, who as a longtime liberal and a former editor of the Texas Observer is an unlikely admirer. “Paul is a conservative of principle. He’s held his ground, and he is an honest man.”
He has also violated almost every rule of political survival you can think of, short of committing a felony. Paul’s beliefs run so deep that he will unhesitatingly vote against his constituents’ interests. In a district with 675 miles of coastline, he opposes federally sponsored flood insurance. In an overwhelmingly rural region, he speaks out against farm subsidies. In a district with large numbers of senior citizens and poor people, he is on record opposing “the welfare state.” In almost all cases, he refuses to deliver “pork” to the good folks of his home district. Appeals to party loyalty are useless; he was one of only sixteen Republicans who voted against George W. Bush’s energy plan, one of only four Republicans who voted against the administration-backed version of the patient’s rights bill, and he opposes its education bill. (He did vote for the president’s tax cut, because he supports tax cuts of any kind.)
His contrarian behavior has made him an enormously appealing figure to residents of the 14th District, which extends from the central Texas coast to the suburbs of Austin and San Antonio. Seven times, over four decades and in two different districts, he has been elected, despite fierce opposition. In the past three elections, he was targeted by the national Democratic party and by major unions, which spent lavishly to beat him. Yet he has won by ever-widening margins. As he coasts into the second year of his seventh term, he may now be unbeatable.
He stands at the microphone in the empty, echoing hall, addressing his words to no one. At seven-twenty on a winter night in the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Paul is the only member on the floor. High above him, half a dozen people are scattered across the nosebleed seats of the spectator gallery, along with a couple of yawning security guards. There is a woman in the seat where the Speaker of the House normally sits, shuffling paper and paying no attention. There is a lone stenographer on the floor. Out in the Great American Night, there are no doubt some C-SPAN2 junkies watching and listening—part of Paul’s far-flung network of pro-gun, pro-life, pro-property rights, and anti-government admirers, perhaps—but here in the vast, cavernous gallery, there are only empty seats and silence. Paul is unfazed; he is an habitué of this place in these lonely off-hours. This is his time—the end of the workday, when everyone goes home except those who want to speechify on any subject. In a soft tenor voice that occasionally rises to a higher pitch, he delivers a stem-winding denunciation of the secretive institution he believes is responsible for many of the economic ills of the modern world: the Federal Reserve System.
This is, of course, a distinctly minority view in a city that regards Federal Reserve System board chairman Alan Greenspan as a sort of cross between Houdini and Saint Peter. But it is typical of Paul’s unconventional ideas. If he had his way, there would be no Federal Reserve at all. (He calls Greenspan a “price fixer” and refers to the Fed as the “chief counterfeiter for the world.”) He wants to return the U.S. to the gold standard, get us out of the United Nations, and abolish most forms of federal law enforcement. He has also voted against giving congressional medals to Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks, against giving earthquake relief to India, and against a bill that would have helped prevent child pornography on the Internet. He wants to abolish all federal drug laws and cancel the war on drugs. Like Don Quixote, Paul confronts a vast and transcendent evil that most of his colleagues do not believe exists. They have a name for him: Dr. No. His beliefs are so at odds with those of his 434 House colleagues that as of October 1, 1999, the Congressional Quarterly had tallied that he had been the lone negative vote 42 times in the previous two sessions—compared to 22 times for everybody else combined. He hates Washington, never attends the usual cocktail parties and receptions, and spends as little time there as he possibly can.
Back in his quiet, high-ceilinged office in the Capitol, the dreaded Dr. No turns out to be something different from the gun-toting, fire-breathing, right-wing militia nut his opponents would have you believe he is. Instead of a libertarian Genghis Khan, I am talking to a friendly, slender man with graying hair, wearing a standard-issue chalk-stripe suit. He would strike you as a kindly, crinkle-eyed, slightly absentminded family doctor, direct from central casting. In fact, he is a doctor, a prominent obstetrician in Brazoria County who has delivered four thousand babies, a good portion of those while serving as a congressman. He is answering, in a patient and good-natured way, a question asking if he thinks the federal government has become too powerful.
“I think it’s a police state that is absolutely out of control,” he says placidly, eating a modest lunch of canned soup and a white-bread sandwich at his desk. “We have eighty-three thousand federal officials carrying guns. Every regulation that is made, every federal law that is written, is done with the idea that there is a gun waiting right there to enforce it. If you don’t pay your taxes or follow the regulation or use your land exactly as they tell you to, if you cut down a tree you’re not supposed to or fill in a ditch, a gun will come and take your money, take your land, or put you in jail. Everything that is done up here is based on a gun. It’s an armed state. It has gotten so big already, it’s going to be hard to stop.” He pauses, then smiles and says, “You know, I’m for gun control. I want to get the guns out of the hands of the bureaucrats.”
To grasp fully how such a man can possibly exist in contemporary American electoral politics, you must first understand two basic truths. One involves gynecology; the other involves a semi-obscure, dead Austrian economist by the name of Ludwig von Mises. If that sounds like a slightly odd preamble to a story about a United States congressman, it is no more odd than the world of Ron Paul.
First: Politics for him is a passion, not a career. Paul is one of few doctors in the House (eight, including dentists) and part of an even smaller group that has actively practiced medicine while holding office. After attending Gettysburg College and Duke University School of Medicine, Paul, who was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, spent five years as an Air Force flight surgeon—two and a half on active duty at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio—then set up practice in Lake Jackson in 1968. Having taken over the practice of a retiring doctor, he was the only ob-gyn in Brazoria County. “On my first day, I had thirty to forty patients in my office,” Paul says. “I delivered forty to fifty babies a month and did a lot of surgery. It was exactly what I was looking for.” He was 41 and a prominent, successful physician when he was first elected to Congress. He is affluent, or whatever the notch below wealthy is. He doesn’t need the job.
Second: His hero is neither a founding father nor a contemporary politician but an obscure Austrian economist whose ideas guide most of what Paul does. While he was pursuing his medical career, he became interested in economics, especially the works of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), a laissez-faire economist opposed to government intervention in markets and in favor of the gold standard. What launched Paul into politics were two distinctly un-Misean actions taken by President Richard Nixon in 1971: He intervened massively in the U.S. economy by establishing wage and price controls, and he took the country off the gold standard. For Paul, these actions were unthinkable exercises of federal power. We all have our moments of clarity. His epiphany came on August 15, 1971. “I remember the day very clearly,” he says. “Nixon closed the gold window, which meant admitting that we could no longer meet our commitments and that there would be no more backing of the dollar. After that day, all money would be political money rather than money of real value. I was astounded.” In 1974, the year of Nixon’s resignation and possibly the worst year in American history for the Republican party, Paul, already the contrarian, decided to become a Republican and run for Congress from the 22nd District, which lies slightly to the north and east of the 14th (and which is now represented by Tom DeLay). He lost that election. Then he got lucky: When the winner resigned a year later, Paul won the special election that followed.
He quickly made a name for himself as the ultimate constitutional dogmatist: If it wasn’t written in plain language in the Constitution, which allocated only a few specific powers to the federal government, he didn’t believe in it. In Paul’s view, government should provide for national defense, ensure fairness under the law, guarantee personal liberty—and get out of the way. That includes abortion, which he sees as murder, but he believes that the proper authority to deal with it is the state, not the federal government. What galls him more than anything else is the sheer size of government. He likes to remind people that in 1909 the cost of government at all levels came to 7.7 percent of the total domestic economy. Today that figure is 50 percent.
Though Paul is a Republican, he can be maddeningly uncooperative with his GOP colleagues, especially when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money. In the eighties Republicans desperately needed Paul’s vote in favor of the B-1 bomber. Despite enormous pressure, he refused. He saw it as a needless expenditure of taxpayer money to fund an expansionist foreign policy that he opposed. He even got a call from President Reagan and still would not change his vote. “The conservatives hated me for that,” he says. He can also be, on occasion, something of a gadfly. When he was criticized for voting against the medal for Mother Teresa, he chivied his colleagues by challenging them to personally contribute $100 to mint the medal. No one did, of course. At the time, Paul observed, “It’s easier to be generous with other people’s money.”
Paul served four terms in Congress, during which time he usually voted no, and sponsored dozens of bills that were instantly consigned to oblivion and a few, such as one that would have set term limits, that were ahead of their time. In 1984 he took his own advice and term-limited himself, made a hopeless run against Phil Gramm in the Republican Senate primary, then retired to doctoring—which he had kept doing the whole time anyway, seeing patients and delivering babies on Mondays and Saturdays for all of his eight years in Congress. He was then 49, had a prospering practice, and had no particular political ambitions. As always, he refused to take Medicare or Medicaid money from patients (he worked out a cash payment or did not charge them). He didn’t believe in the welfare state, so why take its money?
For reasons that even he cannot quite explain, in 1987 Ron Paul became the Libertarian party’s candidate for president of the United States. Though his positions on most issues are identical to those of the Libertarians (abortion being the main exception), Paul admits that this was a strange, almost Sisyphean move, considering his prospects for victory. “I probably invested close to a year,” he says. “It was a lot of time and effort. Sometimes I had some ambivalence about how productive it was.”As it turned out, it was hugely productive but not in ways that Paul could see then. Though he got less than one percent of the vote in the 1988 presidential election, he managed to unite a vast network of true believers—not only staunch Libertarians, but also anti-gun control folks, fiscal conservatives, home-schoolers, right-to-lifers, school prayer advocates, isolationists, and people who generally felt that the U.S. government was veering out of control. Their financial support would become a key factor in Paul’s return to congressional politics.
That happened in 1996. With Nolan Ryan as his honorary campaign chairman, he entered a bruising Republican primary against incumbent Greg Laughlin, who had switched parties the year before. Paul was now running in a new district, the 14th (he had moved his residence from Lake Jackson to his beach house in Surfside). It was a demographic oddity that connected the Gulf Coast and Central Texas and included the Brazos, Colorado, and Guadalupe lower river basins and the small cities of Victoria, San Marcos, and Freeport. Paul immediately discovered that the electoral ground rules had changed: With the Democrats trying to regain control of the House, which they had lost two Dr. No years earlier, and Speaker Newt Gingrich backing Laughlin, whom GOP regulars viewed as the stronger candidate, someone who had run for president on the Libertarian ticket—and who had advocated things like the repeal of federal drug laws and an end to the “so-called drug war”—was now a much bigger and more visible target. “My image was completely different in 1996 than in 1976,” Paul says. “You can’t just get passed off as an average Republican having done what I did. We got hit hard.”
Most of the hitting was on the drug issue, first by Laughlin, whom Paul beat convincingly in a runoff, then by Charles “Lefty” Morris, Paul’s opponent in the general election. Morris was certain that Paul’s radical views would discredit him with voters. “We just have to get his ideas out, and people will know what he really stands for,” Morris said at the time. He ran ads saying that Paul advocated the legalization of illegal drugs, which was not entirely accurate. Though some of Paul’s public remarks had suggested that he supported full drug legalization, his official position was (and is) that federal drug laws ought to be repealed: Let the states handle all drug laws. Then Morris’ subalterns dug up something even more damaging to Paul: copies of a 1992 newsletter he had published that contained racially tinted remarks.
They caused a minor sensation. In one issue of the Ron Paul Survival Report, which he had published since 1985, he called former U.S. representative Barbara Jordan a “fraud” and a “half-educated victimologist.” In another issue, he cited reports that 85 percent of all black men in Washington, D.C., are arrested at some point: “Given the inefficiencies of what D.C. laughingly calls the ‘criminal justice system,’ I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.” And under the headline “Terrorist Update,” he wrote: “If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be.”
In spite of calls from Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and other civil rights leaders for an apology for such obvious racial typecasting, Paul stood his ground. He said only that his remarks about Barbara Jordan related to her stands on affirmative action and that his written comments about blacks were in the context of “current events and statistical reports of the time.” He denied any racist intent. What made the statements in the publication even more puzzling was that, in four terms as a U. S. congressman and one presidential race, Paul had never uttered anything remotely like this.
When I ask him why, he pauses for a moment, then says, “I could never say this in the campaign, but those words weren’t really written by me. It wasn’t my language at all. Other people help me with my newsletter as I travel around. I think the one on Barbara Jordan was the saddest thing, because Barbara and I served together and actually she was a delightful lady.” Paul says that item ended up there because “we wanted to do something on affirmative action, and it ended up in the newsletter and became personalized. I never personalize anything.”
His reasons for keeping this a secret are harder to understand: “They were never my words, but I had some moral responsibility for them . . . I actually really wanted to try to explain that it doesn’t come from me directly, but they [campaign aides] said that’s too confusing. ‘It appeared in your letter and your name was on that letter and therefore you have to live with it.'” It is a measure of his stubbornness, determination, and ultimately his contrarian nature that, until this surprising volte-face in our interview, he had never shared this secret. It seems, in retrospect, that it would have been far, far easier to have told the truth at the time.
That controversy ought to have destroyed him. Lefty Morris certainly thought it would, and things looked even bleaker for Paul when the AFL-CIO kicked in with a heavy rotation of anti-Paul ads. That may explain why, even after midnight on Election Day, when the newspapers were all giving the election to Paul, Morris still refused to concede. He simply couldn’t believe it.
As it turned out, Morris had underestimated Paul’s ability both to raise money from his national network of donors and to successfully paint his opponent as a tool of trial lawyers and big labor. Paul raised $1.2 million to Morris’ $472,153. “He has one of the largest contributor bases in Congress, outside of the leadership,” says Ken Bryan, a political consultant who has worked for Democratic state senator Ken Armbrister and for Paul opponents Laughlin and Loy Sneary. According to Paul’s campaign manager, Mark Elam, Paul raises a lot of money in small amounts. “He appeals to people nationwide,” he says. “We have used direct mail and built our own contributors’ list. The vast majority of it comes from individuals, at an average of about forty dollars.” That money enabled him to launch a massive direct-mail campaign in the 14th Congressional District.
In the 1998 election, the Democrats were just as certain that Paul could be beaten. His opponent was Loy Sneary, a rice farmer from Bay City and a former Matagorda County judge. This time even more national party money and union money flowed into the 14th. “The Democrats officially targeted us both times,” says Elam. After all, here was a politician foolish enough to preach against federal farm subsidies in a rural district. And he was now famous as Dr. No, the man who voted against everything.
Again, Paul drew on his vast contributor base, outraising Sneary $2.1 million to $734,000. And again he won, this time by 55 percent to 44 percent—a significant improvement over his 51 to 48 win over Morris. In 2000 Paul raised $2.4 million to Sneary’s $1.1 million and widened his margin yet again, to 60 to 40.
In the years of defending himself against the assembled liberal multitudes, Paul has learned a slashing campaign style of his own. “Ron Paul specializes in attack, only he is much better at it than they are,” says Dan Cobb, the editorial page editor of the Victoria Advocate, which endorsed Sneary. “He used Sneary’s own record as a county judge to attack him in a misleading fashion, but it worked.” Indeed, in a “Truth Test” report during the 2000 campaign, TV station KVUE in Austin found three out of four claims in Paul’s ads to be false; a fourth was “true but misleading.” Says Sneary, who is still upset about the campaign: “It’s one thing when you criticize our position. It’s another thing to take that information and use half-truths and no truths in a campaign.”
Cobb says that, in part, Sneary and the Democrats asked for it. “He [Sneary] tried to paint Paul as a right-wing monster. He’s not that. He’s a bundle of interesting points of view, no question. You can’t turn that into a terrible person. It’s just nonsense and people don’t buy it because they know him.” Cobb also says Sneary was wrong, strategically, to attack Paul: “It should be obvious by now that you can’t attack him. All you can do is run a positive campaign. People in the Fourteenth feel they know exactly where Paul stands. He is consistent and adheres to his principles. He has great personal integrity.”
The question about someone like Ron Paul, who always votes his conscience and never cuts a deal, is whether he can be effective. That depends upon how you define “effective.” Out in his district, where he spends three to four days a week, every week, often taking one or two of his fifteen grandchildren out politicking with him, it is quickly apparent how good he is at keeping in touch with his constituents. He is famous for attending Boy Scout honor ceremonies and graduations and civic club luncheons and just about any event that will have him. I recently followed him as he made his rounds in his district. He began the day at his home in Surfside, driving east with a staffer to Victoria. He met with the editors of the Victoria Advocate, attended two war-medal ceremonies in Victoria and Bay City, made several calls on constituents, met with his staff briefly at his district office, listened to the complaints of a commercial fisherman, and gave a midday speech to a civic group. By the end of the day, he had driven three hundred miles or more. For him, this is politics as usual.
The medal ceremonies are a good example of why Paul is so effective as a candidate. They are the result of efforts by his staff to secure medals for veterans who never received them. These are moving events, and Paul does dozens of them each year. The recipients’ families often weep when they receive the medals that Paul’s staff has had framed, usually with photographs of the soldier as a young man. Paul gives a short speech, celebrating the medal winners and plugging a few of his own political causes. At several stops people who know him as a doctor come up to him. “Guess what?” one young woman says as we stand in the parking lot of a small newspaper. “You delivered me!” Several of his older constituents mention the help they got from Paul in getting free or discounted prescription drugs by exploiting a little-known patient-assistance program offered by drug companies. His staff makes an effort to send all of his constituents birthday cards, as well as condolences at the death of a family member.
At the Northside Rotary Club luncheon at the Victoria Country Club, Paul is in his usual form. He is not a particularly inspiring speaker, but he pulls no punches: a combination of bland and apocalyptic. He talks of the “bubble” world economy, of the Federal Reserve System as the “counterfeiter for the world.” He says that, contrary to what everyone else in Washington thinks, there is no surplus in the Treasury. He says we should get rid of the income tax, get rid of the Food and Drug Administration (“It does more harm than good”), and abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (“It now controls your land”).
The businessmen in attendance applaud politely. They seem to be somewhat perplexed by Paul’s monetary theories, strongly in favor of his anti-tax message, and amused by some of the anti-government rhetoric. A couple of them tell me that they like him because he votes against taxes. But what he actually says in his twenty-minute speech doesn’t seem to matter that much to the one hundred or so Rotarians. In a strange way, he transcends his message. They don’t see Dr. No, the man who wants to dismantle Washington. They just see good old Ron Paul, the taxpayers’ best friend.
But if effectiveness is measured by his success at sponsoring and passing bills in Congress, he does not score as well. He is not, after all, a leader or a consensus builder. He is a loner, an outsider. “We don’t kid ourselves about the chance of passage of a lot of these bills,” concedes Paul’s press secretary, Jeff Deist. In his past three terms in Congress, Paul has managed to get only two pieces of his own legislation onto the floor and into law: a bill to prohibit the Department of Housing and Urban Development from seizing a church in New York State by eminent domain and a bill transferring ownership of the Lake Texana dam project from the federal government back to the State of Texas. He has, in addition, managed to get four amendments into other bills, including prohibitions on funding for national ID numbers and federal teacher certification. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to pass legislation. In the 106th Congress he sponsored 59 bills, including measures abolishing the income tax and estate and gift taxes, withdrawing the U.S. from the World Trade Organization, ensuring the integrity of Social Security trust funds, and prohibiting the Department of Defense from using troops in Kosovo unless specifically authorized by law. In the current Congress, he is sponsoring 35 bills. He again proposes to abolish the personal income tax, he wants to repeal the War Powers Resolution so that the president cannot deploy American troops without a declaration of war by Congress, and he has moved to end U.S. membership in the United Nations. Few of these have even been debated on the floor, let alone voted on. His greatest influence these days is probably felt in the area of individual privacy; he has worked tirelessly against national ID cards and other forms of what he considers to be federal snooping.
“Principles have a price,” says Charlie Cook, who publishes the Cook Political Report in Washington. “Ron Paul has a rigid, inflexible ideology, and it has undermined his effectiveness. But he probably sleeps better than anyone else on Capitol Hill.” Paul’s own answer is short and vintage Ron Paul. “The only real measure of effectiveness,” he says, “is if I stand up for people’s rights and their liberty and the Constitution.”