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How the Pauls (Ron and Rand) Are Reshaping Politics

11 minute read
Michael Crowley

When Rand Paul pulled off a surprise win in Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary, he bragged that he was carrying “a message from the Tea Party” that Washington was in for a shake-up. Less than 72 hours later, the ophthalmologist turned political phenom wasn’t sending out messages so much as hiding out in a state of radioactive embarrassment. A day after his win, Paul had mused that the forced integration of Southern lunch counters by the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an unacceptable federal intrusion into the private sector. The following day, Paul announced that the Obama Administration’s tough response to BP over the Gulf Coast oil spill was “un-American” and offered that “sometimes accidents happen.”

By that time, Paul himself was starting to seem like an accident. Democrats gleefully chased the media ambulances as GOP leaders scrambled to distance themselves from the gory scene. But however this newcomer performs in the coming months, the fact remains that he is part of a larger family — literally and figuratively — of like-minded conservatives reshaping Republican politics and giving an unexpectedly complex twist to the 2010 election. Even if Paul keeps stumbling over his shoelaces, the antigovernment ideas that have inspired him and fueled his campaign aren’t going away — and they may gain strength as the U.S. debt problem deepens.

(See pictures of the emergence of Rand Paul.)

His outsider success is hardly unique in Republican circles this campaign season, after all. In Arizona, former Congressman J.D. Hayworth is mounting a strong, Tea Party–backed challenge to his party’s last presidential nominee, Senator John McCain. Tea Party power forced Florida’s moderate governor, Charlie Crist, to flee a Senate primary fight with young conservative star Marco Rubio and try an independent bid. And less than two weeks before Paul knocked off his opponent, Kentucky’s secretary of state Trey Grayson, activists at a Utah GOP convention dumped three-term Senator Bob Bennett, long a reliable conservative vote, for such sins as flirting with compromise on Obama’s health care plan and supporting the 2008 Wall Street bailout.

Rand may be the talk of Washington at the moment, but his meek-mannered 74-year-old father Ron is in many ways the improbable godfather of the Tea Party movement. In a GOP lacking for compelling leaders, he may be the man with the most potential influence as the 2012 campaign approaches.

(See portraits of the Tea Party movement.)

Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, with its message of limited government and its anti-Establishment ethos, created a kind of do-it-yourself model for the current activism shaking up politics around the country. The Paul campaign even inspired the first modern-day tea party that anyone can remember: a December 2007 antitax protest re-enacting the original Boston Tea Party on its 234th anniversary. (On that same day, Paul’s fervent supporters raised an astounding $6 million online, a single-day record.) The message then, as now, was a revolt against government taxes and spending and what his supporters called “tyranny.” “Dr. Paul was pushing for fiscal responsibility and limited government long before the Tea Party moniker was slapped on it,” says John O’Hara, author of the book A New American Tea Party.

The tale of Rand Paul’s stunning — and now controversial — success is really an outgrowth of his father’s unlikely crusade. Whether or not Rand Paul wins in November, his father is sure to keep the movement’s torch burning. And if Republican leaders don’t like it? Tough. “Ron Paul’s influence should be respected more than it is,” says a Republican strategist aligned with a likely 2012 candidate. “The more the Establishment rolls its eyes at him and his supporters, the more motivated they become.”

(Read “Is Rand Paul Good or Bad for Republicans?”)

Ron Paul has always been a curious vessel for the pent-up frustrations he unleashes among his followers. Born in Pittsburgh, he earned a medical degree at Duke and began his adult life as an obstetrician. But he also developed a passion for libertarian philosophy, which preaches the power of individual liberty over almost every form of government action. He grew keen on the obscure theories of Austrian-school economists, who champion unfettered markets and individualism. Paul was finally moved to politics, he says, when Richard Nixon completed the U.S.’s abandonment of the gold standard. Believing that the American financial system had become a dangerous mirage, Paul, by then a Texas resident, first ran for Congress in 1976 and, after leaving the capital from 1985 to 1996, has represented the Gulf Coast–Galveston area continuously since 1997.

For years, Paul was something of a running joke in Congress. Adopting a highly literal view of the Constitution — including the argument that the government should do almost nothing beyond providing basic safety and security — he opposed most spending bills, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, federal drug laws, the CIA and nearly all U.S. military action overseas. Nicknamed “Dr. No,” Paul even opposed relief for Hurricane Katrina victims.

In 1988, Paul ran for President on the Libertarian ticket, bashing Ronald Reagan for letting deficits get out of control, but finished with just 0.5% of the vote. Twenty years later, Paul’s views no longer seemed kooky: government spending soared even under a Republican Congress and President, leaving many conservatives fed up. At the same time, the human and financial toll of the Iraq war, which Paul decried as an act of imperialism, left some Republicans angry with the so-called neocon wing of their party. When Paul ran as a Republican in 2008, a new coalition of groups as varied as homeschoolers, active military personnel and zealous college kids went wild for his unpolished, taboo-breaking authenticity. With his jumbled syntax, reedy voice and wiry frame, Paul is the opposite of a state-of-the-art jut-jawed pol like Mitt Romney.

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If his followers could be extreme ideologically, they certainly delivered Establishment-grade money, raising more than $20 million in 2008. Yet Paul was never able to translate that enthusiasm and money into votes and wound up with just 14 delegates.

But no sooner had Paul ended his campaign than the very foundations of the world economy grew wobbly. Overnight, Dr. No’s prescriptions gained a surprising currency. Paul had long called for the abolition of the U.S.’s central bank, which he accuses of “flooding the economy with easy money” that leads to boom-and-bust cycles. That seemed like a personal fixation, and Paul’s perennial attempts, dating from 1983, to open the Federal Reserve’s secret books to the sunlight of an audit, went nowhere — that is, until the great financial meltdown of 2008. In a testament to how the world has shifted around Paul, in May the Senate passed a Fed audit provision. Unanimously. When Paul released a book last fall exposing the Fed’s practices (End the Fed), it became a best seller. “I don’t take credit for being clairvoyant,” Paul told TIME with typical humility. Anyone who’s been paying attention to Austrian economics would have seen the same things coming, he explains. “This system is not viable.”

(See the top 10 political defections.)

Paul says he didn’t force his views on his five children. “My wife and I raised our kids pretty laissez-faire,” he says (fitting for a libertarian), “teaching self-reliance and responsibility and the work ethic.” Rand followed his father into the family business in two ways. First, medicine. After attending Baylor University in Texas and, like his dad, Duke medical school, Rand moved to Bowling Green, Ky., with his wife Kelley Ashby and opened an eye-surgery practice. More than his siblings, Rand was also drawn to libertarian economists and writers like Ayn Rand who had shaped his father’s worldview. (The coincidence is striking, but Rand, whose full name is Randal, says he was not named after the Atlas Shrugged author.) “He was slightly smaller than his brothers,” says the elder Paul. Rand is 5 ft. 6 in. (168 cm). “He was athletic, but he was more challenged because he had to compensate for his size. I think he had to work harder to be competitive, not only with his peers but also his siblings.”

Rand waded into politics within a year of moving to Kentucky. He founded Kentucky Taxpayers United, which urged local politicians to sign pledges not to raise taxes. He says that elective office held little appeal for him until the events of the past couple of years. “I ran for office not because I needed a job. It’s not that glamorous — it’s a lot of miles, a lot of eating McDonald’s,” Paul told a crowd in Columbia, Ky., in late February. “My fear, my worry, which is the same of the Tea Party movement, is that we could destroy our country with this out-of-control spending.” His father’s 2008 campaign gave him a useful training ground: Rand would often warm up crowds at his dad’s campaign events; he contributed a fiery stem-winder to that December 2007 Boston tea party.

(Read “Kentucky Republicans Show ‘Unity’ Behind Rand Paul.”)

Rand has proven more politically flexible than his father. In Boston, Rand railed against the “imperial presidency” of George W. Bush and denounced the Iraq war; in Kentucky he picked his fights more selectively. He mostly sidestepped foreign policy, instead emphasizing economics, bashing the stimulus plan, bank bailouts and pork-barrel spending. Rand said he is skeptical about the U.S.’s presence in Afghanistan but didn’t oppose it. After seeming to dismiss the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and then taking heat for that, he quickly clarified that he supports sanctions against Iran and even the threat of military action. Unlike most libertarians, Rand opposes abortion, gay marriage and decriminalizing drugs. But as the uproar over his comments about the Civil Rights Act demonstrates, his underlying political philosophy has elements that don’t translate into mainstream appeal. Eliminate environmental regulations? End all gun control? Abolish the minimum wage? All are standard libertarian beliefs. “It is true that there are certain things that libertarians believe that will seem just shocking and scandalous to most people unless we’re given 10 minutes to explain ourselves,” explains Tom Woods, a scholar at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute. But that’s about nine minutes more than anyone in modern politics gets.

Rand’s quick retreat from the topic of government-mandated integration shows that he understands that politics sometimes trumps principle. But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America. It may not be as dogmatic as the strain studied at the von Mises Institute; we’re not ready to legalize heroin just yet. But polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention.

The Pauls also understand that libertarianism is merging with populism to explosive effect. Past populist movements summoned government action against the excesses of big business. Today, many Tea Partyers view government and business as working in collusion to rob the average guy — as demonstrated by the huge bank bailout that restored Wall Street bonuses but brought little relief to Main Street. With that comes a sense of outsiderness — an intense distrust of all authority, from Congress to the media to financial institutions, even the medical establishment. This too favors the Pauls, two men with open disdain for the inner sanctums of power and money. “Ideas are the only things that count, and politicians are, for the most part, pretty much irrelevant,” Ron Paul told the London Independent in December.

All that, and the rise of the son, makes a repeat White House run by the father more likely, no matter his age. Ron Paul has already scored a big win in the first straw poll of the 2012 season, beating the likes of Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin at a gathering of conservatives in February. “It’s way too early” to decide, Paul says. “I have no plans, but I have not ruled it out.” And why would he? He has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

With reporting by Alex Altman and Jay Newton-Small / Kentucky

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