SO FAR IN Campaign 2008, the one contender who seems to have generated the most grassroots excitement isn't really a contender at all. Ron Paul, the Republican congressman from Texas, doesn't have much chance of winning.
When the mainstream media have noticed Paul at all, they have largely treated him as a curiosity or even a nuisance: After the first Republican debate in May, a
Yet Paul has a following that no other candidate can match in sheer dedication. His impressive performance in Internet polls has been supplemented with two landslide victories in Republican straw polls - in Strafford County, N.H., (with 208 of the 288 votes) and in Alabama.
What, then, is Ron Paul all about? While his views are decidedly unorthodox for today's Republican Party, they represent a venerable, oft-forgotten Republican tradition of small government at home and noninterventionism abroad. In some ways, he is an heir to Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican who ran for president in 1964. Paul, a 72-year-old physician, first ran for president in 1988 on the Libertarian Party ticket. Then, he decided to work from within the GOP. He won a House seat as a Republican in 1996, over strong opposition from the establishment.
On the campaign trail, Paul articulates a philosophy that recalls the famous dictum often attributed to Henry David Thoreau: "That government is best which governs least." "I want to be president mainly for what I don't want to do: I don't want to run your life, I don't want to run the economy, and I don't want to police the world," he told a potential supporter at the Strafford County straw poll. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and the income tax, to end the war in Iraq and the war on drugs, to dismantle the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Education.
Unlike many libertarians, Paul is not a social-issues liberal: thus, he opposes abortion. However, he wants the issue to be decided by states, not on a federal level. And, in the first Republican debate, Paul gave the only principled libertarian response on the issue of funding for stem-cell research: "The trouble with issues like this is, in Washington we either prohibit it or subsidize it. And the market should deal with it, and the states should deal with it."
Paul's followers are a veritable rainbow coalition drawn from across the political spectrum. The most striking image from his campaign - the slogan "Revolution" with the letters "EVOL" reversed to spell "love" backward - is, to use a 1960s metaphor, more Beatles than Barry Goldwater. (The creator of this slogan, Arizona libertarian Ernie Hancock, explains in an online article that the "love" refers to love of liberty, but concedes that the visual was chosen mainly for its emotional impact.)
In a sense, Paul is the Ralph Nader of the right, attracting people who are deeply alienated by conventional politics. Inevitably, he attracts people from the lunatic fringe, such as Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists who believe the US government engineered the attacks. But it would be unfair to paint Paul as the candidate of crackpots. His message resonates with many people who don't fit into conventional categories of left and right.
In its pure form, Paul's libertarianism is not politically viable. Polls have shown that, at most, about 10 percent of Americans are in favor of reducing the scope of government, and domestic government services, to a minimum. Paul's case for noninterventionism abroad is problematic as well. He has contrasted our entanglements in Third World countries that cannot pose a military threat to the United States with the fact that "we stood up to the Soviets [who] had 40,000 nuclear weapons." But American foreign policy in the Cold War was an interventionist one, requiring massive and expensive commitments from the federal government. And there is a strong argument that, in today's globalized world, totalitarian movements rooted in religious extremism would inevitably threaten US interests and safety if left unchecked by American power.
Even if, by some miracle, Paul managed to win, it is unlikely he would be able to enact much of his libertarian agenda. But in an age of bipartisan Nanny Statism, his arguments provide a refreshing alternative, a bold and much-needed critique of a creeping loss of freedom at home and reckless adventurism abroad.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.