As he heads into the New Hampshire Republican primary after capturing 10 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul is no longer the mystery he was when he began his run for president.
The 10-term Republican congressman from the Gulf Coast of Texas has become a star of the Internet, attracting an army of mostly young, energetic, fiercely loyal “Paulistas” and shocking the political establishment by raising more than $20 million in contributions, mainly via the Web.
A medical doctor who’s delivered 4,000 babies, Paul has been able to espouse his libertarian ideas about personal freedom, constitutionally limited government, non-intervention overseas and sound money during the presidential debates and in countless interviews in the mainstream media.
Conservative pundits, elements of the GOP and the Fox News Channel have tried to marginalize him or brand him as a “kook.” But Paul, 72, has been praised by commentators on the right such as Pat Buchanan and super-blogger Andrew Sullivan for standing “up for what conservatism once stood for” and challenging the party elite that has “trapped the U.S. in the Iraq nightmare.”
The following Q&A is assembled from two interviews with Paul, one from late 2000 and one in April, 2007, shortly after he announced he said would run for president.
Q: Why are you running for president -- and why now?
A: I’m responding to a lot of requests from supporters that I do this. I have agreed that the message of a constitutionally limited government is very deserving. We happen to believe that that the freedom movement is at a place now where the numbers are growing by leaps and bounds and that we can run a credible race in the campaign.
Q: How do you define your politics?
A: In a philosophic sense, I describe myself as strict constitutionalist. I believe the Constitution is a very libertarian document, and therefore I identify with classical liberal or libertarian ideas. I do not volunteer the definition of "conservative," and certainly not "liberal," in today's circumstances.
Q: For those who don't know the difference between a “classical liberal” and (the late) liberal New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, can you tell us the difference?
A: Well, the classical liberal, or the libertarian, or the constitutionalist, believes that government is designed to protect our liberties and to allow people to solve their own problems. It is not designed to regulate the economy, nor our personal lives.
Under the classical liberal viewpoint, government was there to restrain force and to allow people to use their own creative energy to solve their problems. Today, the modern liberal -- and many conservatives -- believes government has a much bigger role in telling us what to do, how to live and involvement in our personal lives, as well as regulating the economy.
Q: Who are your favorite classical liberals?
A: In the economic sense, and for the 20th century, my favorite is Ludwig von Mises, because he has done the best job in explaining how a free-market economy can work if we allow it to work.
Of course, I also like John Locke. And of course, the one who in a very simplistic way influenced a lot of the modern day libertarians was Frederic Bastiat. He wrote the book "The Law," which simplifies the whole debate so succinctly. It's easy for everybody to read and understand, the principle being that government should never do anything that you, yourself, can't do. And if it's illegal for you to steal from your neighbor, it should never be permissible for you to send the government to steal from your neighbor in order for you to have some material benefit.
Q: What kind of Republican are you?
A: I call myself a constitutional Republican. Some others call me a libertarian Republican., which is OK too, because I believe the Founders were very libertarian. They wanted a very limited government and they emphasized individual liberty. In many ways to me that’s a traditional Republican, because there was a time when Republicans stood for smaller government and actually they stood for nonintervention overseas. They argued always against the Democrats starting wars. They argued in the past for sound money and civil liberties. It’s just that they’ve lost their way and Republicans and Democrats are pretty much the same these days.
Q: In what ways do you most differ from the other Republican candidates?
A: I would say in two areas. One is in foreign policy, because they have all gone along with Bush and the policy in the Middle East. I was opposed to the war in Iraq a long time before it was started, arguing that we were moving in that direction and that we should not. I have taken a very, very strong position against the war, that we ought to end it and that we ought to come home.
The other area is something that is for most people very esoteric but to me very, very fundamental and very important and that is sound money. We should never have given the federal government -- through the Federal Reserve System -- the power to create money out of thin air, because it inevitably causes a great deal of economic harm and at the same time it gives license to governments to spend money they don’t have and then delay the payment by just printing up the money and penalizing the poor people and middle-class with high inflation rates.
Q: What is your basic campaign pitch – in 20 or 30 seconds?
A: We should have a constitutional president – somebody who believes sincerely in the oath of office and that is to limit the size and scope of government. Which means if he is dedicated to that viewpoint, he will start shrinking the size of government, not expanding it. I think that message will resound with many, many Republicans.
Q: The ultimate but realistic goal that you have is to do what? Obviously, you’d like to become president, but …
A: The goal is to win. Then I guess if you can’t win, you want to do the very best that you can and have an impact. But it’s very annoying to people if you start off by saying, “I can’t win. Why am I doing this?” Then again, being unrealistic doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, either. I was absolutely convinced at first that I could never be a congressman running on this platform. Yet I surprised myself and won that first time and then continually won re-election with bigger margins, so I’m convinced the message is very, very strong. But the special interests are very, very powerful as well.
Q: How do you get yourself elected so easily in Texas? How can you attract voters without violating your principles?
A: Well, my platform is just what we're talking about. People ought to cherish their liberties and they ought to have somebody that will fight for them and try to convince them that they're going to be better off; that's what America's all about.
I think they respond to this. I'm in an agricultural district and I get 65 percent of their vote. All the farm organizations, especially in this last election, campaigned heavily against me, and yet every farmer knows that I do not vote for subsidies and I tell them so.
And yet I want to make sure the government leaves them alone in every other area, too.
I think when I talk to them they respond much better than most politicians think. Some politicians in Washington are sympathetic to my views, but they say, "Hey, you know, you're not going to get re-elected, or I couldn't get elected if I took those positions." Of course, my goal has been to stick to those principles, vote that way and prove that it's a positive philosophy, and so far we've been able to do that.
Q: What would happen if you tried to run on the platform back here in Pittsburgh, where you grew up?
A: I am so confident and such a believer in the freedom philosophy, that I believe that I could win, whether it was a Republican district, a Democrat district or a borderline district. I just think that you have to present it in slightly different ways.
I live in a Bible Belt and none of them started off agreeing with me on the War on Drugs. Yet I was able to convince them. Now they tell me all the time -- "The war on drugs is stupid." I had to explain that. I didn't go out and campaign on that, deliberately. But if I were to run in San Francisco, I may be talking about the ridiculousness of the drug war.
I think you just have to have confidence in the philosophy, that it applies to everybody - as individuals. Whether you're a liberal or conservative or moderate or whatever, there's something in there that's very attractive.
Q: Since you ran for president in 1988, have you become more or less optimistic about America's future, in terms of what we're talking about - individual freedom, free markets, limited government?
A: Overall, I'm more optimistic. There are more people who would agree with these views that I'm expressing now outside of Washington than there were when I was in Washington or running in '88. Washington is not reflecting that yet. Washington's the same old place - and it's going to get worse before it gets better. But overall, I think the country is much better off and there are much more people thinking this way. I'm encouraged.
Q: Do you think you will have a problem getting your message out in the media – and not getting sidetracked from talking about what you want to talk about or emphasize?
A: Yes I do. I think the media will do everything in the world to try to keep us from getting a message out that might challenge the conventional wisdom, because obviously the large majority of the major media outlets going up to the war promoted the war and still support the war, as do the leaders in both parties, so they are not much interested in hearing that message. But the message can be sent out through the Internet and when the debates occur.
Q: Do Republican voters really want someone like you – someone who really wants to cut the size and power of government and maximize individual freedoms?
A: I don’t think all Republicans do, because they keep electing the wrong kind. But I think the grassroots – those who go to conventions and those who write the platforms – do. I was just studying the Iowa state Republican platform, and, boy, it’s hardcore. And Texas has a platform that’s really hardcore. But they are not the money people. The money people in the Republican Party come from the drug industry and the military industrial complex.
So yes, that’s our competition and they have a lot of money and a lot of clout and frequently they own media outlets, too. It’s a struggle, but I am convinced we are on the right side of the issue and we are also in an era where something has to be done, because more and more people every day are starting to realize that we can’t continue to just expand our entitlement system and never draw back from our foreign commitments and think that we can have a viable currency and a viable economy. I think it’s becoming quite clear that our economy is suffering from this.
Q: So the idea that you are a marginal candidate with no chance because you are marginal is not as true today as it certainly once was?
A: I think that’s absolutely true.