Probing Ron Paul: Better Luck This Time

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

He's a virtually unknown Texas congressman, come from seemingly nowhere to launch a quixotic quest for the Presidency. He preaches a gospel of freedom, individual rights, and a Federal government so small it verges on nonexistent. He proclaims himself a true conservative, the alternative to the big-government, tax-raising Republicans of the likes of George Bush. He's a maverick, who disagrees with one of his party's major tenets--but that difference makes him appealing to those who would not normally vote for a candidate from that party.

Welcome to Ron Paul for President--1988.

According to his official biography on the Ron Paul 2008 website, Paul served in Congress in the late 1970s and early '80s until, "In 1984, he voluntarily relinquished his House seat and returned to his medical practice. Dr. Paul returned to Congress in 1997 to represent the 14th congressional district of Texas."

So based on that, one would guess that Dr. Paul spent those thirteen wilderness years in quiet happiness, delivering babies in Texas and making, "What I Don't Miss About Washington" lists. There's a little bit more to the story than that, though.

Ron Paul was spurred to enter politics when the United States completely abandoned the gold standard, an economic choice that infuriated him. He lost his first congressional race in 1974, but in 1976 won a special election to represent Texas's 22nd District after the incumbent, Robert Casey, was chosen by President Ford to head the Federal Maritime Commission. Paul lost the seat in the general election six months later, but then won it back in 1978.

Idiosyncratic barely begins to describe Congressman Paul. He never registered for his Congressional pension. He proposed term limits for Congress. He introduced legislation that would decrease Congressional pay by the rate of inflation. He regularly went back to Texas to continue his medical practice. And due to his firm resistance to anything that increased government spending, he never promoted or voted for projects that would bring money to his home district, something which is usually tacitly considered part of a representative's job. Nevertheless, Paul was re-elected two more times.

As stated in his campaign biography, Paul did voluntarily relinquish his House seat in 1984. However, it wasn't so he could just return to Texas to be a full-time doctor again; rather, he left Congress to run for the Senate, a race he lost to Phil Gramm. In a scathing farewell speech to the House, Paul stated, "Special interests have replaced the concern that the Founders had for general welfare. Vote trading is seen as good politics. The errand-boy mentality is ordinary, the defender of liberty is seen as bizarre. It's difficult for one who loves true liberty and utterly detests the power of the state to come to Washington for a period of time and not leave a true cynic."

By 1987, some of that cynicism had apparently subsided--in February, Paul entered the 1988 presidential race as a candidate for the Libertarian Party's nomination. He had recently left the Republican Party, excoriating it for not living up to its conservative, small government ideals. "Big government is running away with our freedom and our money, and the Republicans are just as much to blame as the Democrats," he said.

Paul agreed with those who said he would "take a chainsaw to the federal budget," explaining that he would run a campaign against, "a run-amok IRS and a tax system that rightly outrages Americans, the attack on our personal liberty and financial privacy and foreign policy that drains our wallets, enriches our enemies, shreds the Constitution and kills our children."

A third-party candidate is an immediate underdog, but Paul promised to counteract that by running a grassroots campaign. In 1988, that meant traveling nonstop, trying to get media attention, and finding any place possible to make his case, including a steady stream of colleges and high schools.

Visits to high schools were emblematic of the realities of the campaign. Few high school students are of voting age, so for presidential candidates, there is an element of futility, and perhaps a little comedy, in spending time on them--if you are "reduced" to speaking before audiences of bored teenagers, you obviously must not be very important. Paul realized this and understood he had no chance of being elected. But for Paul and other Libertarians, the campaign was more about building for the future than winning. He explained, ''We're building the Libertarian Party and we're just as interested in the future generation as this election...These kids will vote eventually, and maybe, just maybe, they'll go home and talk to their parents.'

The national Libertarian Convention took place in August, 1987. Paul's competition was Indian rights activist Russell Means. Paul headed for the convention convinced that his nomination was a lock, but others were not so sure. Paul's pro-life stance was considered a problem in a party that supported abortion rights.

Party members suggested that by supporting the idea that the government shouldn't impose any laws regarding abortion, Paul would be able to remain true to his own beliefs and take a stand that fit in with Libertarian philosophy. He refused to moderate his views. Despite that, he still was selected as the party's nominee.

Paul received some national attention. Evangelist Pat Robertson, after he dropped out of the race himself, proposed Paul to his followers as a true conservative alternative to George Bush. Some other conservative leaders, while not outright endorsing Paul, indicated some support for his run as a means of drawing attention to Bush's lack of a real conservative economic vision.

On a lighter note, David Letterman and Sandra Bernhardt, a guest on his show, said that they planned vote for "Libertarian candidate Ron Paul." (no word if Letterman actually followed to respond, Dave?).

In the end, though, it didn't matter. Paul received only 409,412 votes, or slightly more than four-tenths of one percent of the total votes cast.

Paul returned to Congress in 1996. In January, 2007, he announced another bid for the presidency, this time as a Republican candidate. Again, he recognized that he was perceived as an underdog.

"This is going to be a grassroots American campaign," he said. "For us, it's either going to happen at the grassroots level or it's not."

The mainstream media grouped Paul with the second tier candidates, behind the big national names like Giuliani, Romney, and McCain. But in the third quarter of 2007, Paul raised $5 million, better than the other second tier candidates and almost as good as some of his bigger name competitors.

So what's the difference twenty years later?

Part of it, of course, is being a candidate for the Republican party. That instantly guarantees a higher profile and sense of legitimacy that people don't give to third-party candidates. Some of it is due to the war; Paul offers an alternative to Republicans who want to get out of Iraq and to anti-war Democrats who aren't pleased with their own array of candidates. In 1988, Paul lacked such a galvanizing issue; it's hard to get people to rally behind, "Bring back the Gold Standard!"

The largest factor, though, has to be the Internet. In 1987, grassroots meant visiting high schools. In 2007, it means blogs, social networking websites, campaign emails, and meetups organized online. The Ron Paul supporter in 1987 was likely the only one he or she knew; now, though, it's easy for people from otherwise divergent backgrounds and beliefs to find each other. And when people know there are other believe in the same thing or person, that in itself makes the belief legitimate. When you think you're the only one, a cause seems hopeless and most aren't willing to fight those fights. When you know there are others, suddenly the fight seems manageable and worth fighting.

It's hard to say for certain whether Paul's supporters are more Internet savvy or spend more time online than supporters of other candidates. There is some interesting data, though, that points that way.

According to web traffic analyst Hitwise, Ron Paul's website had the second most visits amongst all the presidential candidates during the week ending September 29 (Barack Obama was number one). Of the 938 websites categorized as "political" by Hitwise, Ron Paul's site was ranked number 46. The next Republican candidate on the list was Mitt Romney, at 99.

A closer look at the web traffic to Ron Paul's site reveals that the largest percentage of visitors by far found their way there through a Google search. However, the second largest percentage came through Yahoo! Mail. This means that either they got there via a campaign email, or perhaps, more interestingly, word of mouth from friends.

Looking at who actually donated and how also is revealing. Jesse Benton, a campaign spokesman, suggested that up to 80% of the donations came online. The largest group of donors, amongst those who identified a profession, the largest group was "retired" (insert your own "Ron Paul locks up the cranky old man vote" joke). The second largest, though, was people in the computer/internet business.

The online world has largely existed without any kind of government. Any attempts to institute laws to regulate the Internet--taxes, pornography--have met with vehement resistance. When governments try to restrict or control the internet, as in China, people try to find ways to get around the restrictions, and they often do, or will succeed. Techies will always be ahead of politicians.

Free content available to all has become the norm online. Attempts to charge for online newspapers, magazines, and other material have, in most cases, failed. People believe they can find what they were looking for somewhere else for free--and they're usually right. And if it isn't out there, they'll write, or photograph or video or record it and post themselves.

The Internet is generally self-policing. Anyone who has read and posted comments on a blog or been part of an online chat has seen moments when the crowd has fought back against an obnoxious poster. When someone causes too much trouble, the owner of the website or blog can take action to block that person. Rules for the Internet have evolved from the users, not a government agency.

Ron Paul's message is about an America that's virtually government free, where people are expected to manage their lives without government support, but also without government interference. Maybe the reason Paul's message is more popular now than in 1987 is that the world--or at least one part of it--has caught up with it. Maybe the reason Ron Paul's support is so tied to the Internet is that he is the candidate whose vision for how the nation should be run most closely matches how the Internet is run. Maybe he is the best candidate for Internet Nation.

In a 1988 interview, Paul was asked how long he thought it would take to reach his goal of a virtually government-free America.

"How long did it take the Marxists to do it? It took them about 75 years. We've been at it for 16 years, and I'd say we're doing very well."

That was almost twenty years ago. That leaves 39 years for the real world. But maybe online, the revolution has already happened.

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