(in Washington) - New members of Congress often complain that the Capitol is a lonely place. The phone calls, letters, and personal visits by irate constituents can make the unitiated feel like the whole world is against them. In such times, the psychological support groups known as political parties come in especially handy. At the end of the day-after the bruising debate and angry confrontations-there's nothing like a group hug from the other 200 or so congressmen who voted the same way.
For Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), however, the group hugs are rare. On many issues the physician-turned-politician is more likely to vote with the Democrats than with his GOP colleagues. Other times he votes against almost everyone, regardless of political party. In a Congress where the revolution has been mainly rhetorical, Dr. Paul is a true radical, lobbing "no" votes like Molotov cocktails against pet programs.
If the Republican mantle does not fit him well, it's because he is a "little-L" libertarian at heart. He doesn't shy away from the controversial label-provided he gets to define the term himself. "I believe that the real purpose behind our Revolution and our Constitution is the protection of individual liberty. If the individual is to be protected and we're not going to have a strong national government-if we don't believe the government should interfere in the economy, and we don't believe the government should interfere in our social and religious lives, including our sexual lives, as well as a policy that says we don't interfere in the affairs of other countries-if that's libertarianism, then I'm one of them."
He often talks like that: a jumble of ideas colliding together and spilling over, as if too big or important or dynamic to be limited by niceties such as punctuation. His naturally high-pitched voice becomes even more so when he gets excited (which is most of the time), and his rapid-fire delivery makes him seem less a statesman than a salesman. He's selling ideas, and he really wants you to buy. The ideas themselves haven't changed much since he ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket 10 years ago. But like any good salesman, he constantly tinkers with the packaging, constantly polishes the pitch.
In 1996 he managed to sell his libertarian ideas to enough Texans to squeak into Congress by just 6,500 votes. The people of his rambling, rural district considered themselves conservative, and Dr. Paul convinced them that Greg Laughlin, the Democratic incumbent who had switched to the GOP, wasn't conservative enough. He touted his own 99 percent lifetime approval rating by the National Taxpayers Union and his string of "Taxpayer's Best Friend" awards. Economist Milton Friedman weighed in with an endorsement, offsetting the help that Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush Jr. gave to Dr. Paul's primary opponent. And from all over the country, Libertarians contributed small amounts to their one-time standard-bearer, pushing Dr. Paul's campaign war chest up to nearly $2 million.
The Democratic candidate tried to remind voters that Dr. Paul was a Libertarian in Republican clothing. Questions about the legalization of drugs kept arising, to which Dr. Paul responded that the federal government had no business in the anti-drug business-though he kept the door open for state and local efforts. But narcotics are a dim threat in the small farming towns of the 14th congressional district, and Dr. Paul's anti-tax message overwhelmed any lingering doubts about his stance on drugs. Perhaps voters thought no politician in his right mind could vote to end the war on drugs, anyway.
If so, they seriously underestimated the strength of Dr. Paul's political philosophy. Last year, he was the sole vote in the entire House of Representatives against block-granting billions of dollars to communities for the fight against substance abuse. "If you believe in true liberty, you become very tolerant of people's personal habits," he muses in his congressional office, where portraits of libertarian heroes like economist Ludwig von Mises look down from the walls. "If you're very tolerant and non-judgmental-as long as the individuals doing those things are not hurting other people-in the legal sense we approve it, though we try to bring about changes in a voluntary manner.
"Some people think that if you legalize choices, you sanction that behavior. But if it's legal to discuss communism, I don't sanction it. If I legalize drugs or sexual preferences or gambling, I don't sanction it. It just means I want to deal with it in a different manner."
If such a hands-off social policy makes him sound like he's running for mayor of San Francisco, most of Dr. Paul's other political positions would instantly disqualify him for that job. Unlike most Libertarians, for instance, he is staunchly pro-life. His practice as an OB/GYN-now on hold because of his congressional service-has convinced him that life begins at conception; thus the choice to abort is no longer merely personal since it harms another. He wants to repeal all existing gun-control laws, pull the United States out of the United Nations, and zero-fund the National Endowment for the Arts.
His position on the NEA illustrates the difference between Dr. Paul and many of his GOP colleagues. While other Republicans condemn the agency's funding of pornographic and sacrilegious art, Dr. Paul refuses to get into that debate. To him, the problem is not the content of the art, but the constitutionality of arts funding, period. He sees nothing in the Constitution giving the federal government the right to spend taxpayers' money to promote the arts. The same rationale has recently driven him to vote against overwhelmingly popular measures to encourage adoption of foster children (416-5) and to provide free education to disabled children (420-3). He even opposed awarding a Congressional Medal of Honor to Mother Teresa.
Dr. Paul isn't surprised that he has so little company on many of his votes. "In reality, the Constitution is irrelevant to almost everything that the party proposes," he says. "I think they'd be the first to say that they are pragmatic. They acknowledge a need for what I say, but do not think that government can move along if you hold rigid.... I realize that I'm not going to my ideal free society any time soon. But I feel it's very important to state the position as clearly as possible for strictly limited government, the rule of law, and guidance through the Constitution. I don't claim the Constitution's perfect, but once you start rejecting portions of it, you in essence reject the whole thing. And then you have rule of men who write laws, rather than rule of law through the Constitution limiting the power of government."
Such a fundamentalist view of the Constitution makes Dr. Paul something of a political dinosaur at a time when both major parties have largely accepted the idea of an activist, interventionist federal government. Opponents are betting that ideas like his are headed for extinction. Four Democrats lined up for the privilege of facing him in the November election, and Loy Sneary emerged April 14 as the Democrats' choice to face Dr. Paul in the fall. Mr. Sneary, despite being bruised in the contentious primary and runoff, believes Dr. Paul's reputation as "Congressman No" makes him an easy target.
To retain his seat, the congressman will need unflinching support from the many Christian conservatives in his largely Southern Baptist district. But it remains to be seen how Dr. Paul will fare with the religious right. The Christian Coalition's influential voting guides, for instance, stress positions on social issues like homosexuality and gambling-two of many areas in which Dr. Paul believes the federal government should not be involved.
Dr. Paul knows that his social views put him at odds with conservative Christians who want to hold back moral corruption, in line with the biblical injunction to be salt and light. But he is unapologetic. "I consider-I am a Christian," he says, speaking slowly for a change. "I've read the Bible. But I did not conclude that I have an instruction to change the law to make people better. I do have a moral commitment to my fellow man.... But I believe I can meet that same injunction in a voluntary manner rather than by compulsion."
With that, characteristically, he turns the conversation back to philosophy of government. His pitch rises again as he tries to convey the importance of philosophical consistency, regardless of the attractiveness of the particular issue at hand. "If you concede the principle, you're just dealing with manipulation and dealing on the edges without changing anything," he insists. "You sacrifice too much if you accept the compulsion of the state to accomplish [social good]. Then you have conceded the whole moral argument to the liberal who wants to improve the economy through welfare and socialism."
Dr. Paul, who attends both Evangelical Free and Baptist churches, ends up challenging Christians "to come in the direction of having government that protects liberty rather than imposing any rules and regulations on nonviolent activities.... They cannot sacrifice that principle. The only way they can save freedom of religion is to tolerate some social practices which they don't endorse. There's a lot of things done in the name of religion that can be construed as very, very dangerous, but if you think we should regulate that through the law, then we're in big trouble."