Rep. Ron Paul, GOP Loner, Comes In From Cold
As virtually all of Washington was declaring WikiLeaks’s disclosures of secret diplomatic cables an act of treason, Representative Ron Paul was applauding the organization for exposing the United States’ “delusional foreign policy.”
For this, the conservative blog RedState dubbed him “Al Qaeda’s favorite member of Congress.”
It was hardly the first time that Mr.Paul had marched to his own beat.
During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, he was best remembered for declaring in a debate that the 9/11 attacks were the Muslim world’s response to American military intervention around the globe.
A fellow candidate, former Mayor Rudolph W.Giuliani of New York, interrupted and demanded that he take back the words — a request that Mr.Paul refused.
During his 20 years in Congress, Mr.Paul has staked out the lonely end of 434-to-1 votes against legislation that he considers unconstitutional, even on issues as ceremonial as granting Mother Teresa a Congressional Gold Medal.
His colleagues have dubbed him “Dr.No,” but his wife will insist that they have the spelling wrong: he is really Dr.Know.
Now it appears others are beginning to credit him with some wisdom — or at least acknowledging his passionate following.
After years of blocking him from a leadership position, Mr.Paul’s fellow Republicans have named him chairman of the House subcommittee on domestic monetary policy, which oversees the Federal Reserve as well as the currency and the valuation of the dollar.
Mr.Paul has strong views on those issues.
He has written a book called “End the Fed”; he embraces Austrian economic thought, which holds that the government has no role in regulating the economy; and he advocates a return to the gold standard.
Many of the new Republicans in the next Congress campaigned on precisely the issues that Mr.Paul has been talking about for 40 years: forbidding Congress from any action not explicitly authorized in the Constitution, eliminating entire federal departments as unconstitutional and checking the power of the Fed.
He has been called the “intellectual godfather of the Tea Party,” but he also is the real father of the Tea Party movement’s most high-profile winner, Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky. (The two will be roommates in Ron Paul’s Virginia condominium. “I told him as long as he didn’t expect me to cook,” the elder Mr.Paul said. “I’m not going to take care of him the way his mother did.”)
Republicans had blocked Mr.Paul from leading the monetary policy panel once before, and banking executives reportedly urged them to do so again.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly recognize that Mr.Paul has a following — among his supporters from 2008 and within the Tea Party, which helped the Republicans recapture the House majority by picking up Mr.Paul’s longstanding and highly vocal opposition to the federal debt.
Aides, supporters and television interviewers now use words like “vindicated” to describe him — a term Mr.Paul, a 75-year-old obstetrician with the manner of a country doctor, brushes off.
“I don’t think it’s very personal,” he said in an interview in his office on the Hill, where he has represented the 14th District of Texas on and off since 1976. “People are really worried about what’s happening, so they’re searching, and I think they see that we’ve been offering answers.”
If there is vindication here, Mr.Paul says, it is for Austrian economic theory — an anti-Keynesian model that many mainstream economists consider radical and dismiss as magical thinking.
The theory argues that markets operate properly only when they are unfettered by government regulation and intervention.
It holds that the government should not have a central bank or dictate economic or monetary policy.
Once the government begins any economic planning, such thinking goes, it ends up making all the economic decisions for its citizens, essentially enslaving them.
The walls of Mr.Paul’s Congressional office are devoid of the usual pictures with presidents and other dignitaries.
Instead, there are portraits of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, titans of the Austrian school.
For years, Mr.Paul would talk about their ideas and eyes would glaze over.
But during his presidential campaign, he said he began to notice a glimmer of recognition among those who attended his events, particularly on college campuses.
Mr.Paul now views his exchange with Mr.Giuliani in 2008 as a crucial moment in his drive for more supporters.
“A lot of them said, ‘I’d never heard of you, and I liked what you said and I went and checked your voting record and you’d actually voted that way,’ ” he said.
“They’d see that the thing that everybody on the House floor considered a liability for 20 years, my single ‘no’ votes, they’d say, ‘He did that himself; he really must believe this.’ ”
His campaign that year attracted a coalition that even he recognizes does not always stand together: young people who liked his advocacy of greater civil liberties and the decriminalization of marijuana; conservatives who nodded at his antidebt message; and others who agreed with his opposition to the Iraq war.
During George W.Bush’s presidency, he was out of favor with the reigning neoconservatives who were alarmed at his anti-interventionism.
He still gives many conservatives fits with comments like his praise for WikiLeaks.
And many of those who follow the Fed closely say his ideas are “very strange indeed,” in the words of Lyle E.Gramley, a former governor of the Fed who is now a senior economic adviser at the Potomac Research Group.
“I don’t think he understands what central banking is all about,” Mr.Gramley said.
Putting such a critic of the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S.Bernanke, in such a prominent role, he added, could damage economic confidence.
“The public doesn’t understand how serious the problem was and why the Fed had to take the action it did,” Mr.Gramley said.
"Having someone in Congress taking shots at the Fed makes the situation uneasy.” Still, Mr.Paul says, his colleagues respect his following outside Washington.
“I was on the House floor today,” he said, “and somebody I don’t know real well, another Republican, he was talking to two other members, and he knew I was listening.
He pointed at me and said, ‘That guy has more bumper stickers in my district than I do!’ ”
Interview requests are so common that Mr.Paul has set up a camera and studio backdrop in his district office to save him the hour’s drive to television stations in Houston.
His bill demanding a full audit of the Fed, which he had unsuccessfully pushed for years, attracted 320 co-sponsors in the House this year.
And the lunches that he has held in his office every Thursday, where lawmakers can meet intellectuals and policymakers who embrace Austrian economics, have become more crowded, drawing Tea Party celebrities like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
“For a long time, a lot of people in Congress on both sides of the aisle agreed with Ron a lot of the time but felt it wasn’t safe to go there,” said Jesse Benton, a longtime Ron Paul aide who ran Rand Paul’s Senate campaign.
The father is about to gain even greater visibility.
He says he will use his new chairmanship to renew his push for a full audit of the Fed and to hold a series of hearings on monetary policy.
On Web sites for Ron Paul fans, there are urgent pleas for a father-son (or son-father) “Paul/Paul 2012” ticket.
But in an interview, the senior Mr.Paul seemed taken by surprise by the suggestion of teaming up.
While he is bursting-proud of his son, he is not necessarily ready to yield the spotlight: He is pondering another presidential run on his own.
“I’d say it’s at least 50-50 that I’ll run again,” he said, adding that he would look at where the economy is. (Aides add that it would depend a lot on what his wife, Carol, says.)
But for all the ways the Tea Party echoes Mr.Paul on fiscal issues, it is not clear such support would carry over into a presidential campaign. The last time he ran, he won less than 2 percent of the vote, though that was before the Tea Party became a force in politics.
Even many Tea Party conservatives are not on board with Mr.Paul’s beliefs about scaling back the United States military worldwide.
And Paul supporters look on the Tea Party with some disdain.
Mr.Paul acknowledged the sometimes competing interests among Tea Party supporters and his fans.
“What brings them together is this acceptance that there’s something really wrong, that we’ve spent too much money and government’s too big,” he said.
That, he added, was why he had to work at keeping up his influence, particularly in spreading the word about the cost of foreign interventions.
Still, he noted: “We’re further along than I would have expected in getting our message out in front.
I thought I’d be long gone from Congress before anybody would pay much attention.”