One way to measure the surprising rightward political lurch of the past two years and rise of the Tea Party is to chart the relative position of Ron Paul, who has never flinched from his beliefs. He’s not alone anymore.
By JOSHUA GREEN
IMAGE CREDIT: SARAH WILSON
RON PAUL LED the annual Fourth of July parade through Friendswood, Texas, from the back of a gleaming pickup truck that inched along behind a replica of the Liberty Bell and just ahead of Lady Liberty herself, who was sitting in a Corvette and seemed to have wilted under the oppressive noonday sun. Or perhaps the oppressive policies of Barack Obama—it was hard to tell which. Along the parade route, the Stars and Stripes vied for prominence with STOP OBAMA signs.
Friendswood lies just south of Houston, in a district that voted 2-to-1 for John McCain, and for George W. Bush before him. But the distinctive flavor of the local conservatism is most vividly conveyed by Paul, the 75-year-old arch-libertarian congressman and sometime presidential candidate whose disdain for federal power is so severe that he once voted to deny Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal because the Constitution does not expressly authorize such an expenditure. Paul thinks the government ought to be doing a whole lot less, and his constituents seem to agree. They’ve been returning him to Congress since the 1970s by growing margins.
Lately a lot of people, not just in Texas, are coming around to this view. “I’m so confident in my philosophy that I think I could run a pretty good race in San Francisco,” he told me in his Washington office recently. “What I’d talk about there wouldn’t be so much about deficit spending as about personal liberties, military engagement overseas, and the financial crisis. That used to help more in conservative districts. But everybody’s worried about it now.”
Paul is a wisp of a man, with hardscrabble features like a Dust Bowl farmer’s. He has the kindly manner of a small-town doctor, which he was, and an old-fashioned sense of propriety to go with it—he doesn’t travel alone with women who aren’t his wife. But when he gets caught up explaining his philosophy, especially his unorthodox ideas about economics, his eyes widen and his insistent, high-pitched voice makes him seem—there’s no way of putting this gently—slightly unhinged.
At the parade, the proximate cause of anger was Obama’s decision to end the manned-spaceflight program at the nearby Johnson Space Center, a major employer, and to retire the space shuttle. But the sentiment had been building. Recently, the White House had ordered a freeze on offshore oil drilling after the BP blowout, which further disrupted the local economy. Things were looking bleak. A community that Money magazine had only recently named one of America’s “best places to live” suddenly felt robbed of its economic vitality—and by a government that had not hesitated to rescue Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers. To an aggrieved citizen of Friendswood and the many places like it, the accusation that the federal government has broken faith in some fundamental way with the Founding Fathers sounds not just right but righteous. And therefore so does Paul, since this is the message he has preached for 40 years.
IN CONGRESS, PAUL usually stands alone. This is a natural consequence of voting against Mother Teresa and the countless other bills on seemingly unobjectionable matters to which only he has objected. For much of his career, his own party routinely blocked him. His notoriety peaked three years ago during a presidential-primary debate in South Carolina when, alone among the 10 candidates, Paul, an isolationist, questioned the U.S. presence in the Middle East and seemed to suggest that it had prompted the September 11 attacks. Rudy Giuliani immediately demanded he withdraw the statement (he refused), and afterward Paul tussled with Sean Hannity of Fox News, which derided him mercilessly for the rest of the campaign. When Republicans convened in Minneapolis to nominate John McCain, Paul was so far out of favor that he and his supporters held their own convention across town….