Brian Doherty aside, most reporters don't know what to make of Ron Paul. This observation isn't simply a clichéd swipe at the "drive-by media" or the dinosaurs of the dreaded "MSM." To the working press, from the Red Bull-addled gumshoes at Internet start-ups to grizzled veterans of the campaign trail, Paul's two Republican presidential bids simply do not compute.
This only partly due to liberal bias, the smothering conventional wisdom that sees no practical difference between restoring the Constitution and returning the powdered wig to its proper place in American fashion. Gold standard? Letters of marque and reprisal? Mainstream media eyes glaze over.
Political journalists also have something of a Great White problem with Paul: once bitten, twice shy. Whenever they begin to take the 12-term libertarian-leaning Texas congressman's presidential ambitions seriously -- such as when he won the fourth quarter money primary in late 2007 or was leading in the polls in Iowa exactly four years later -- he ultimately falls short of expectations. Sometimes just short, like when Michele Bachmann barely edged him out at the Ames straw poll or when he finished a very strong third in the Iowa caucuses. Sometimes quite a bit short, as when his top-tier 2008 fundraising didn't come close to translating into a top-tier candidacy.
But the biggest problem is that there is no easy media narrative for what Paul is doing. The success or failure of most presidential campaigns is determined by two simple metrics: winning the nomination and winning the White House. Whatever his principled disagreements with Mitt Romney, when Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign, that was all she wrote. There is no generation of Rick Santorum Republicans ready to run in his place. When John Kerry came up short in Ohio against George W. Bush in 2004, he became yesterday's news. (His running mate, John Edwards, has not been so fortunate.)
As is obvious to everyone but most of his 1.3 million voters so far (of which this reviewer is one), Ron Paul isn't going to be the Republican presidential nominee. He has won the popular vote in just one contest, a razor-thin, almost universally ignored victory in the Virgin Islands' GOP caucuses. He has lost every bona fide state. Although most running tallies grossly understate Paul's delegate haul, his numbers are far behind Romney's. It is even less likely that Dr. Paul will become president.
But Paul is also more than your typical also-ran. He is still attracting crowds that number in the thousands on the stump. His online money bombs raise millions of dollars even as this late stage of the campaign. Most importantly, his supporters are crowding Republican state conventions and district meetings. The result is that Paul is accumulating a surprising number of delegates at the very moment Romney is on the verge of capturing the nomination.
Doherty is a rare political journalist who understands that something special is going on here. As someone with an affinity for the ideas that animate Paul's campaign -- Doherty is a senior editor for Reason magazine and wrote an exhaustive history of the libertarian movement entitled Radicals for Capitalism -- his new book Ron Paul's REVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired brilliantly captures the ideas, personalities, and politics of this unique politician.
Before Paul ran for president he cobbled together an interesting career winning election to Congress -- three times as a nonincumbent -- in traditionally Republican districts running as Dr. No. Paul's congressional staff was helpful and adept at constituent services. But while they hunted down your government check that had gone missing, Paul was busy voting against funding it.
"To ensure a staff that understood where he was coming from," Dohery writes, "Paul relied on people with some history with the original libertarian think tank, the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), including John Robbins, Bruce Bartlett, and the controversial Gary North." (North was controversial because of his affinity for Christian reconstructionism, which Doherty describes as "a mix of economic hyperlibertarianism and social intolerance so severe that the death penalty was prescribed for homosexuality and adultery.")
Bartlett, now best known as an apostate conservative columnist, told Doherty that Paul was "never happier than when the vote was 434 to 1. It was his way of making a point." Paul was a successful congressman who eschewed the normal rules of Capitol Hill. His congressional office was as much a libertarian educational initiative as a political enterprise. That would prove true of his first two presidential campaigns -- one as a Libertarian and his first as a Republican -- as well.
Paul spent thirty years talking to a relatively small like-minded audience of libertarians gold bugs. He didn't seem to have much influence in Congress. Most of his bills were spurned by statists on both sides of the aisle. Paul was one of just seven Republicans -- and one of only three conservatives -- to vote against the war in Iraq. He barely beat Russell Means for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination in 1988, a dismaying experience that has almost as much to do with why he won't go third party in November as his son Rand's political career.
So it shouldn't have been surprising that Paul's first presidential campaign started as an educational mission too: Get into the presidential debates, stand on the stage alongside John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani, and rail against immoral wars, expensive government programs, and a reckless monetary policy. His exchange with Giuliani over the 9/11 terrorist attacks and blowback from American foreign policy would have ended most careers.
Instead something completely different happened. Paul became a cult hero. He raised millions of dollars (as mentioned earlier, he outraised all the other GOP candidates in the last few months of 2007). The monetary issues that made Paul seem a crank to most Republicans and the antiwar views that had him branded as a heretic were what drove his most passionate young supporters.
But the money came in too late to significantly upgrade the campaign organization. Doherty discusses Paul's amateurish New Hampshire ads ("He's catchin' on, I'm tellin' ya!) and the conflicts between Paulite true believers and campaign staffers who wanted to appeal to mainstream Republican voters. And then there was the Ron Paul blimp:
When I was doing a dual interview in 2011 with deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari and Trygve Olson, a Republican operative who jumped on the campaign in 2011, Kesair ecumenically said a blimp doesn't hurt, but, well, that was six hundred thousand dollars that the campaign didn't have available to spend on things more useful in winning vote. Olson seems to quietly concur for a moment, but couldn't resist interjecting: "But... he had a blimp!"
Doherty does an excellent job tracing Paul's history from congressional backbencher to Republican elder statesman and pop culture icon. He untangles the complex ideological web Paul occupies, understanding Paul's libertarian roots and his place in traditional, Old Right conservatism. He explains the friends who helped form Paul's movement and who helped imperil it with divisive rhetoric ranging from racially tinged newsletters to intralibertarian quarrels (Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell loom large). He is a rare writer who captures both Paul's irritation with some of his allies and his reluctance to cast them overboard even when there is an obvious political advantage (see again the newsletters controversy).
In researching Ron Paul's REVOLution, Doherty draws on the well of knowledge accumulated in writing Radicals for Capitalism. He also interviews most of the major players, while highlighting lesser known figures like former online campaign staffer Justine Lam and soldier-turned-libertarian provocateur Adam Kokesh. Doherty depicts Paul as principled, decent, and almost as surprised by his sudden popularity as anyone else.
The Paul campaign learned from its 2008 mistakes, with a top-tier performance in Iowa and a second-place finish in New Hampshire to show for it. A second foreign policy exchange in South Carolina -- Paul's adamant opposition to a possible U.S. military attack against Iran and his uncharacteristic waffling about whether he would have ordered the raid killing Osama bin Laden -- stunted his momentum. (It is a delicious irony that Barack Obama is now making hay of 2007 remarks in which Romney similarly quibbled with the idea of an unauthorized Pakistani incursion to get bin Laden.)
Paul still did much better than in 2008. An analysis by New York Times elections blogger Micah Cohen shows that in the states that voted before Super Tuesday, Paul improved his share of the total vote by six percentage points. In caucus states, that number rises to eight points. He received nearly as many votes in the peak of the campaign as he did throughout the entire primary process last time around, when he needed to run in the electoral equivalent of garbage time to boost his popular vote number above 1 million.
The Ron Paul forces are still giving the Republican establishment fits months after their campaign was presumed dead. They took 16 out of 19 delegates allocated by congressional district caucuses in Romney's home state of Massachusetts. Paulites even denied a delegate slot to Romney's former lieutenant governor. Delegate-wise, Paul may turn out to be the winner in Iowa after all. The state GOP will be chaired by Paul supporters in both Iowa and Alaska.
Paul's legacy includes dozens of Ron Paul Republicans, the most successful being his son Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky, and the up-and-coming young Michigan Congressman Justin Amash. This is what makes Paul so hard for the media to cover: he is clearly having a bigger long-term impact than the 1972 John Ashbrook presidential campaign, but movement-building doesn't fit neatly into the horserace mentality of most political journalism.
Doherty ends his book with an exchange between Paul and an ABC News reporter. What would Paul do to improve his poll numbers? "I don't change my message," Paul replied. He then followed up with what Doherty describes as "that slightly hesitant Ron Paul thoughtfulness": "I change minds."
Ron Paul is changing the Republican Party right before our very eyes.