WASHINGTON-Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke almost suppressed a grin at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in mid-July when a lawmaker noted Rep. Ron Paul's plan to retire after he finishes this term-but the smile spread to both ends of the chairman's face. The Texas Republican congressman, who is retiring to focus on his presidential run, would like to abolish Bernanke's agency and return the United States to the gold standard. "Someone had told me that announcement would put a smile on Chairman Bernanke's face," Paul said, laughing giddily. Then he assailed Bernanke about the rising cost of living and the Federal Reserve's injections of cash into the economy-and the chairman's smiling face changed to a furrowed brow.
The gold standard may sound antiquated, but Paul strikes a nerve when he talks about the weak dollar: He said if Bernanke "talked to the average housewife," she would tell the chairman that prices are rising rapidly, even if the Federal Reserve isn't worried over inflation. Hanging on a wall in Paul's congressional office are framed German marks from the autumn of 1923, when hyperinflation raged across Germany. A 10 million mark note in September 1923 bought a loaf of bread, and by October, Germans needed the 500 million mark note framed below for the same loaf of bread. Surrounding the frame with the old German marks are pictures of Paul's five children, 18 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
The "average housewife" may be more inclined toward libertarian ideas than in the past. Paul is considered the father of the Tea Party movement, which upended the midterm elections in 2010. Now central elements of Paul's noninterventionist foreign policy are resonating too. Polls in recent years find American "isolationist sentiment" is at a 40-year high. "I do think there is some growth in interest in libertarian ideas-not the word libertarian-but those ideas," said David Boaz, the executive vice president of the libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute. "If you polled 100 people in Peoria, 10 will have heard of the word, and of those, five people would be libertarian."
The New York Times statistician Nate Silver reported in June that "libertarian sentiments" have risen steadily since 2009 and are at their highest point since polling began in 1993. Still, Paul is an outlier in most GOP presidential polls (though he regularly wins straw polls at places like the Republican Leadership Conference and CPAC). After breaking fundraising records in 2008, Paul's fundraising numbers have been good again: In the last quarter, he raised $4.5 million, better than the same quarter in 2007, when he raised $2.4 million. His fundraising is second in the Republican field to frontrunner Mitt Romney, who raised $18.25 million. President Barack Obama raised $86 million.
At the New Hampshire GOP presidential debate in June, Paul received cheers when the moderator asked him about bringing troops out of Afghanistan: "I'd bring them home as quickly as possible. And I would get them out of Iraq as well. And I wouldn't start a war in Libya. I'd quit bombing Yemen. And I'd quit bombing Pakistan. I'd start taking care of people here at home because we could save hundreds of billions of dollars." Military personnel contributed more to Paul in 2008 than to any other Republican candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Paul supports international commerce and trade but opposes all wars, unless they are what he considers defensive. He would cut all U.S. governmental aid to Pakistan, to Israel, and to the nations in Africa where the United States has made big investments in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He argues that Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, are worse off due to U.S. intervention there: "Christians have lived there since the time of Christ. They survived. And yet the one consequence of this war is that Christians have had to become refugees and actually leave Iraq."
Paul's views are formed from home-he "rarely travels overseas," said his congressional spokeswoman. He never goes on congressional delegations abroad-those cost taxpayers money. His son Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said as a family they stayed close to home when he was growing up because his father was always traveling back and forth to Washington. "Being at home sort of was a vacation," the senator said.
Paul arrived in his congressional office one late morning chipper, even though the 75-year-old had already been up since dawn. "Sometimes I feel like, Why am I doing all of this?" he said, coming into his office and grabbing a water bottle. "I don't need to be this busy. But then if I had nothing to do, I wouldn't be very happy either. I'd go about two days and then wonder, what am I doing next?" A track star in high school, Paul walks several miles daily and bikes whenever he can, so his eyes are bright. Paul has been in Congress over the course of the last 35 years (taking a break from 1985 to 1997), and this is his third presidential run after running in 1988 as a Libertarian and in 2008 as a Republican.
The Pauls are a family of politicians and physicians: Ron Paul and three of his children, including Rand, are physicians and two grandchildren attend medical school now. The senior Paul grew up a Lutheran, but his wife Carol is Episcopalian, and they baptized their five children in that church. He became a Baptist later in life, but his office declined to comment on whether he is a member of a particular church. On his desk sits a picture of his family, with Philippians 1:3 over it: "I thank my God every time I remember you."
His son Rand (short for Randal, not named for Ayn Rand) said they were raised to believe that "the individual and family can conquer most problems." The congressman elaborated. "The parable of the lost sheep-the 99, and the one-the one was the interest of the story," Paul said. "I think that [the Bible] really supports-it at least doesn't contradict my political beliefs at all. If you're responsible for your own salvation and I can't give it to you-nobody can give it to you, they can't legislate it-why shouldn't the rest of your responsibilities be yours?"
In the next second, though, Paul was talking about the power of the group: "Our country was really built-whether it was the schools or our hospitals-most of them were started by the churches." On his bookshelf in his office, he has several Bibles and How Now Shall We Live? by Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, along with Merck's Manual of Medical Information, books on Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, a book on just war theory called Neo-Conned!, and Marijuana, the Forbidden Medication.
Marijuana should be legal, according to Paul, along with heroin, prostitution, and unpasteurized milk: Paul always seems to push further than typical voters will accept. Paul has said the United States reaped 9/11 because of the country's involvement in the Middle East. He did not join the rest of Washington in hailing the assassination of Osama bin Laden: Although in 2001 he voted for assassination as a tactic for responding to 9/11, he didn't think this was the time to stir up resentment in Pakistan with a covert raid: "The Pakistani people now are furious with us for just marching in and embarrassing them." Paul says U.S. forces should have captured bin Laden instead of killing him. "I think maybe talking to him wouldn't have hurt anything," he said. "We talked to KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks], we could have talked to [bin Laden] and gotten some information from him."
That was the last straw for one Ron Paul supporter from the 2008 campaign. Thomas Prettyman, a former Marine now living in Chattanooga, Tenn., said, "I've never agreed with all of Ron Paul's views (abolishing the Federal Reserve, zero intervention abroad), but I've always thought he was the best candidate regardless, because you knew what you were getting." Paul's opposition to the covert raid in Pakistan lost him Prettyman's support: "This guy would've told King David not to take the consecrated bread."
Paul's associations could alienate voters too. In 2008 Paul endorsed his friend, Chuck Baldwin, a pastor who ran as the Constitution Party's candidate, for president after Paul lost the Republican primary. Baldwin suggested in a column, "Praise for Lee and Jackson," which discusses the "War of Northern Aggression," that because of the ever-expanding federal government, "secession may, once again, be in order." He has also questioned whether the federal government was involved in 9/11. "I don't know what happened. I wasn't there," Baldwin told me. "But I do know that there are scores and scores of victims' families that are convinced they have not been told the complete truth as to what happened. There is enough circumstantial evidence, if you please, to warrant a thorough independent investigation."
I asked Paul about endorsing a candidate like Baldwin, who is calling for an investigation into 9/11. He laughed congenially: "Oh, just because someone has a different opinion than mine? I talk to a lot of people who have a disagreement or opinion on something. No, Chuck Baldwin I like very much, but we have some disagreements on the issues. He's very good on monetary policy and the entitlement system." During a 2008 presidential debate in South Carolina, the moderator asked Paul whether he would repudiate the 9/11 truthers: "I can't tell people what to do but I've abandoned those viewpoints and I don't believe that, so that's the only thing that's important," he said. At other times Paul has been more wiggly: When a woman approached him after a Las Vegas speech in 2009 and asked why he wouldn't "come out about the truth about 9/11," Paul responded that he had "too much to do" to get involved in the controversy.
Lew Rockwell, a friend of Paul's who heads the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which Paul helped start, is another associate with a pessimistic outlook on American government. Rockwell was Paul's chief of staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s and wrote the introduction to Paul's book on foreign policy. In a July blog post on his website, lewrockwell.com, Rockwell described government as the "greatest killing, torturing, and looting machine on earth." The U.S. Constitution, he wrote, grew the government into "the monstrosity we have today." Cato vice president Boaz, who has known Paul personally for 30 years, said, "I've never heard him say anything questioning whether the federal government was behind 9/11, but I do think he is too indiscriminate in his associations . . . he should have been more careful over the years."
Paul responded later: "David's a friend of mine," but added that he is "probably a more liberal libertarian." Paul isn't friends with the Republican power players in Washington. He's friends with other outsiders, people like Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who shares his anti-war views, and whose far-left views put him on the fringes of the Democratic Party. Paul's base is also diverse-potheads, homeschoolers, anti-war activists, and some evangelicals. An obstetrician-gynecologist who has delivered thousands of babies over the course of his career, he has a pro-life following too.
"Ever since evangelicals have re-entered the political fray back in the 1970s, we've had a difficult time with accepting its terms as the 'art of the possible,' or the inherent compromises and settling for the-good-over-against-the-best nature of things," said Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College. "Paul is attractive to various libertarians and evangelicals because he is pure and seemingly unsullied by the dirty compromises that politics asks us to make."
When I asked Paul why he wouldn't make a compromise, even if it was pragmatic, he said, "No reason you have to. We don't think about doing that on our religious values." He acknowledges: "Ultimately the only thing that counts is what the people endorse, what they think the role of government ought to be."