[Originally published in The Stranger, August 9, 2007. Illustration by Justin DeGarmo.]
No one seriously thinks an antiwar Republican like Ron Paul can win the presidency. So why are so many people in Washington State and around the country getting behind his campaign?
The Google world headquarters, in Mountain View, California, has become a point of pilgrimage in these early days of the presidential campaign season. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Bill Richardson, and John Edwards have all flown in for appearances at the tech-nerd Valhalla, known to employees as the Googleplex and set on acres of well-groomed, well-wired land just south of San Francisco. The candidates ostensibly come for chats with the big brains who have brought the nine-year-old company to the top of the new-media heap—and who, in the process, have changed the way presidential contenders push their messages. But the candidates also want a chance to loosen the wallets of some famously well-compensated and idealistic internet pioneers, and they crave the online exposure that comes when Google posts their interviews with company executives on YouTube.
Of all of the presidential candidates who have made the pilgrimage to Mountain View thus far, none has caused quite the stir that Republican Congressman Ron Paul did when he arrived at Google in early July to talk about his unique brand of conservatism. It's a conservatism so iconoclastic and, in some ways, so old school, that it is barely recognizable in the context of the Bush era, and it constitutes a radical departure from what the rest of the Republican presidential candidates are saying these days, even as they try to distance themselves from the unpopular president. Angry and accusatory, Paul's critique of the country's Republican leadership has the good fortune of being very much in step with the dismay that voters, liberal and conservative alike, now feel. Not surprisingly, he's proving quite popular, especially online, where well-delivered complaint is king.
Paul's conservatism includes strident opposition to the Iraq war, reverence for the Constitution, contempt for the USA PATRIOT Act, a willingness to criticize evangelical Christians, a relatively hands-off social policy, and a position on taxes that essentially amounts to ending most of them. On the stump, he pummels America's foreign policy in language that you won't hear from any front-runner, Republican or Democrat, offering critiques of the "military industrial complex" and issuing warnings that America is being done in by its hubris. While he's clearly upset about the direction of the country, his tone is always earnest, and his delivery much closer to confident serenity than shouted complaint—which, as he no doubt knows, makes it harder for his opponents to cast him as just another furious crank risen to fringe-candidate status. A day after his Google interview, Paul told a large, cheering crowd at a nearby rally in a Mountain View park: "If you have governments that are doing the right thing, you don't have governments running empires."
Because of such statements, and because of some of his more paranoid followers—who could be found at the Mountain View rally passing out scare-pamphlets about the impending union of the U.S. and Mexico, or wearing T-shirts that read, "9/11 was an inside job"—pundits have tended to dismiss Paul's candidacy as nothing more than a laughable footnote to the larger race. But as a reminder that candidates are not their fringe followers, and that pundits are not always the smartest people in the room, it's worth considering how some of the country's best and brightest technology minds responded to Paul's pitch at Google.
The auditorium where the interview took place was so full of professional Silicon Valley types, dressed to the casual side of business-casual and multitasking on their laptops and Blackberries, that an overflow room had to be opened. Google employees in far-off offices watched a live online simulcast of the interview and submitted far more advance questions than they had for any previous candidate. Within two weeks, the YouTube tape of Paul's Google appearance had received about 140,000 views—almost four times as many views as Clinton's Google appearance, which had been up on YouTube for five months, and eight times as many views as McCain's, which had been up for two months.
None of this was surprising to Vijay Boyapati, a 28-year-old Google software engineer who works at the company's Kirkland office, lives on Capitol Hill, and, when he found out Paul would be appearing at the Mountain View headquarters, immediately dropped about $400 on a plane ticket to San Francisco.
Boyapati wanted some face time with Paul. Though he could have easily stayed in Kirkland and watched the live webcast, he felt it was important to tell the candidate in person about the strong fan base he has developed here in Washington. So excited was Boyapati about this prospect that during the question-and-answer period in Mountain View he turned into one of those fawning audience members who have to be reminded by the moderator (in this case one of Boyapati's superiors) to actually ask a question rather than just gush. "You have a tremendous amount of support up in the Evergreen State," Boyapati told Paul. "And you would receive a reception that you won't forget, so please come up." Paul was noncommittal about his travel plans, but nevertheless, at a fundraiser later in the day, Boyapati maxed out his contribution to the presidential hopeful, writing a check for $2,300.
Boyapati is right that Paul has a large and enthusiastic following here in Washington. On the social-organizing site Meetup.com, there are nine different Ron Paul groups for the Seattle area alone, with nearly 600 members between them. That's more than the entire Seattle area Meetup membership for Clinton, Edwards, McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney combined. To Paul's advisers and strategists, this is all part of a broader phenomenon. Ever since Paul began appearing in the Republican debates and announcing that his party had "lost its way," they've watched their candidate's popularity explode. His campaign's YouTube videos, mostly long clips of Paul's various speeches, are among the most viewed of this election season. Nationally, Paul now has more Meetup groups than any other presidential contender, out-drawing even Democratic internet darling Barack Obama.
No matter what Paul says, it seems to break his way, tapping the wide current of voter frustration that crosses party lines. In a debate in South Carolina in May, Paul sparked what for any other candidate would have been a catastrophic confrontation over 9/11 with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani—and came away with a head-turning fundraising quarter.
In that debate, in response to a question about his Iraq war opposition, Paul suggested that America's recent foreign military interventions—which he has almost uniformly opposed, and which he has suggested are largely about oil—were in some measure responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. "If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred," Paul said, "then we have a problem. They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come here to attack us because we're over there."
Giuliani pounced on this statement, interrupting the debate to demand a retraction from Paul, and saying, "That's really an extraordinary statement." Indeed it was, in that it ran counter to the Republican theme that Americans have been under attack by people who simply, in Bush's words, "hate our freedoms." Paul shrugged off Giuliani's comments, declined to retract his statement, and went right on talking about "blowback" and other perils that he sees in recent U.S. foreign policy. And instead of torpedoing Paul's chances, the exchange seemed to have the opposite effect. When the second fundraising quarter ended in June, Paul's campaign had $2.4 million in the bank, more than the floundering campaign of Iraq war defender John McCain had on hand, and due in large part to online contributions.
Like many of Paul's followers, Boyapati, the Google engineer, sees himself as more Libertarian than Republican. Boyapati recently became a U.S. citizen after emigrating from Australia, and he's never voted before, except in this year's advisory vote on what to do about the Seattle Viaduct (he voted no on both the rebuild and the retrofit "because both involved taxes"). Studying the Constitution in order to become a citizen made Boyapati even more furious about the Iraq war and the USA PATRIOT Act, and he intends to do all he can to help Paul get the Republican nomination so he can vote for him next November.
He's part of an effort to convince Paul to come to Seattle's Hempfest later this summer (Paul has been a critic of federal drug laws). He's offering to pay half the $200 price for Google employees who are willing to buy magnetic advertisements for Paul and put them on the side of their cars. He's crossing his fingers that Paul will score a momentum-confirming second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll on August 11, as some observers have predicted. And, like many, Boyapati believes there is good precedent for a continuing rise in political support for a politician like Ron Paul—a guy who is plain spoken about his antiwar positions at a time when his party has become sick of war double-talk.
Democrats, who in general turned on the war much earlier than Republicans, experienced just such a phenomenon in the last presidential election. "I sort of feel like Ron Paul is Howard Dean on steroids," Boyapati told me.
Whether or not he is the Republican Howard Dean, Ron Paul has already proven to be a singular political character. Born in western Pennsylvania and raised in an observant Lutheran family, Paul was something of a youth athlete, playing football and baseball until a knee injury sidelined him. These days, at 71 the oldest Republican in the presidential race, he still appears to be in good shape, as spry as any of the other conservative contenders.
When he was a young man, Paul helped to pay for his undergraduate studies at Gettysburg College with money he'd saved delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and selling lemonade. His politics are grounded in experiences like that, experiences of self-determination and private action. When he was accepted to Duke Medical School, he noticed that the school offered loans to students at only 1 percent interest if they couldn't afford tuition. The arrangement made good sense to him, and it's something he points to when he explains his current opposition to the modern, government-financed student loans, which he sees as needlessly taking the place of private agreements between schools with big endowments and students in need.
Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president for global communications and public affairs, conducted the interview with Paul in Mountain View and made a point of bringing up Paul's position on student loans during the event—a position that led Paul, as a father, to pay for the entire higher education of all of his five children, three of whom went through medical school, so that they wouldn't have to accept government money. Schrage asked how many employees in the Google auditorium—a youngish crowd, lots of different races—had relied on student loans to get through school. A huge number of hands shot up. Paul joked: "The philosophical question is, do I lose all your votes because I don't support student loans, or do I get your votes because I don't want you to pay social security?"
He then explained the deeper reasoning behind his opposition to a wildly popular program like federal student loans. "The moral question," he said, "is, why should people who don't get to go to college subsidize your education [with their taxes]? I mean, it's just not fair." That's pure Paul: seeing his political philosophy through to its logical conclusions, even if it might seem like career suicide. He starts with an unflinching premise—in this case, a severely limited view of the role of the federal government in evening out social inequities—and lets everything else proceed from there.
After finishing medical school at Duke, Paul enlisted in the Air Force. He was a flight surgeon and, as he told the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently, the experience changed him: "I recall doing a lot of physicals on army warrant officers who wanted to become helicopter pilots and go to Vietnam," he said. "They were gung ho. I've often thought about how many of those people never came back."
Paul didn't protest the Vietnam War, but he came to see it as illegal and unnecessary and uses it on the stump as an example of how foreign military interventions—which, as he always reminds, the founding fathers warned against—don't work. So it's not just the Iraq war that Paul opposes. He has been opposed to almost every American war or foreign military action since Vietnam, with the exception of the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, which he initially backed as a way of going after Osama bin Laden.
Paul now regrets that position, saying it didn't accomplish its aim, and he has recently reintroduced in Congress his own post-9/11 solution for getting bin Laden: "letters of marque and reprisal" that would encourage private individuals, rather than the U.S. government, to go after the terrorist mastermind. As a blogger for The Politico recently noted, letters of marque and reprisal went out of fashion in the mid-1800s—the blogger called Paul's whole idea "wacky." But Paul doesn't care. He has an evident nostalgia for simpler times, and a strong sense that new problems like international Islamist terrorism don't necessarily require new solutions. When Paul reintroduced his "marque and reprisal" legislation last month, he noted that despite six years of the federal government trying to catch him, Osama bin Laden is still at large.
In the air force, Paul was stationed in southern Texas. After he left the service he made his home there, working as an obstetrician—but, consistent with his political views, refusing to take Medicare or Medicaid. "It's all stolen money," he told the Austin American-Statesman in 1996. "The government steals it from one group to give to another. That's coercion. I don't want to deal with the government."
Paul made his first run for Congress in 1974, using the slogan "Freedom, Honesty, and Sound Money." He didn't win, but two years later, in a special election, he did, taking the seat representing Texas's 22nd District, an area just south of Houston. Since then, he's been a Congressman, on and off, for 10 terms, with breaks for running for the U.S. Senate (in 1984, unsuccessfully, against Phil Gramm) and for president (in 1988, also unsuccessfully, as a Libertarian against George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis).
In Congress, as in other areas of his life, Paul has practiced his beliefs with an unusual rigor. In keeping with his strict constitutionalist ideology, he's proudly earned the nickname "Dr. No," voting against any legislation that he feels was not expressly authorized by the founding fathers. He was against Congressional medals for Rosa Parks and Pope John Paul II, for example, for this reason.
He is also against federal flood insurance because it makes people who choose not to live in flood-prone areas pay the costs for people who do (even though residents of his current district, along the Gulf of Mexico, benefit greatly from such insurance). He's against federal gun-control laws, and he thinks handguns on planes (in the hands of both passengers and pilots) could have prevented 9/11. He's against the federal death penalty because he feels the federal government has been inept at implementing it, but he allows that states should be able to have it if they want. He's against the military discharging people solely on the basis of sexual orientation, and in general thinks we should be talking less about sexuality and more about equal rights for all individuals.
What's he for? He's for getting rid of the Federal Reserve, along with most federal departments—including the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency—and for returning to the Gold Standard as the underpinning of U.S. currency. He's for pulling out of the United Nations and stopping the efforts to create a national I.D. card. And, most importantly to his fans, he's a Republican in favor of getting out of Iraq.
Even though his supporters may not agree with all of his positions, Paul has become an alluring figure, in his district and around the country, especially for those who share his nostalgia for simpler times and his almost apocalyptic view of America's future, morally, politically, and financially. ("I think we're on the verge of the collapse of a very big bubble, and that is the dollar bubble," he told the rally in Mountain View, standing in front of a backdrop that featured a giant picture of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.) Voters also clearly gravitate toward his candor and consistency; just as people once respected Bush's stubbornness, even if they disagreed with him on some big issues, many now seem to like Paul's unwavering connection to his core beliefs, and his willingness to follow those beliefs wherever they lead, even if they lead him into disagreements with people who might otherwise want to vote for him.
It's a rare attribute in an era filled with adjustable politicians.
Also alluring is his simplicity, which seems unshaken by the increasing complication of the times. Paul often uses the phrase "not complicated" to refer to his ideas. "Our problems are great, but the solution is not complicated," he is fond of saying. Or: "My solution for Iraq is not complicated... We just marched in, we can just march out." Or: "Almost every answer can be found in our Constitution." Simplicity is part of his cachet, and he knows it. Speaking at Google about the "amazing" and "spontaneous" growth of his campaign, Paul explained, "We've touched a nerve with a lot of people who say, 'That makes sense!'"
Of course, it's much easier to create rhetoric that makes sense than it is to create sensible government policy. Another popular fringe candidate, Democrat Dennis Kucinich, tends to favor the same type of "that makes sense" rhetoric, and has been criticized for wooing voters with "the simplicity of the demagogue." One could level the same charge against Paul, and in fact the two candidates share so many overlapping attributes—against NAFTA, against the war, in favor of simple America-first solutions—that some have suggested they run together on an independent ticket, with Paul in the top slot and Kucinich as the vice presidential candidate. It's not going to happen, but it does say something about how far out of the Republican mainstream Paul is that he's now come to overlap, in people's minds, with a candidate who believes deeply in "the starlit magic of the outermost life of our universe."
When I arrived at the Google campus for the Paul event, I parked behind a 1958 Airstream trailer sporting Texas plates and festooned with hand-painted Ron Paul signs. Later, I found its owner, Debra Murphy, 45, a divorcée from just outside of Houston who has been traveling the country in search of a new direction. Murphy has no TV in her trailer; she found out about Paul while driving through Oregon listening to NPR, and then used her Verizon wireless PC card to look him up on the internet. She considers herself a Republican (she excuses her one past Democratic vote, for Jimmy Carter, by saying: "I was 18").
Standing outside the trailer in silver flip-flops and moonstone earrings, Murphy told me about how she came to be a Paul fan. "I'd never heard of him, and I'm from Texas," she said. "When I started looking him up, I couldn't believe it. He's so honest and he's always voting his principles." She watched him on YouTube. She read political message boards and dived into discussion groups. She gave up on the thoughts she'd been entertaining of voting for Kucinich (she liked his opposition to the war). Through her wireless internet connection, she became convinced Paul was the right antiwar answer and promised to give him $100 a month for as long as she can afford to.
Murphy is, to put it mildly, an alienated Republican. "We were getting sucked in to the whole neocon thing, but now we realize," she told me. "I was for the war in the beginning because I was scared out of my mind. But now I realize it was just hype... I want us out of the war. I voted for Bush twice, and I'm embarrassed. He's really let us down. I'm ashamed of what my country has become."
This seems to be the dominant sentiment driving Paul supporters, this anger at being misled and let down by Bush. Many of them once believed in the president. Now, their fury at where he's taken the country is so powerful it overwhelms everything else.
For example: Murphy is pro-choice. Paul is opposed to abortion and doesn't like Roe v. Wade. He says it's because of his experience delivering so many children, and also because he believes the federal government shouldn't be telling states what to do. That doesn't matter to Murphy; she'll support him anyway.
Another example of this phenomenon: Paul is opposed to the "Net Neutrality" movement, something that Google strongly supports; he says the solution is to have no government regulation on the internet rather than to have regulations (which Google supports) that would be designed to protect consumers from the whims of powerful and wealthy internet gatekeepers. This didn't suppress the enthusiasm of the crowd that gathered for Paul in the Google auditorium, nor did it suppress the enthusiasm of Boyapati, the Google software engineer who works in Kirkland.
Still another example, and perhaps the best because it highlights how radical Paul's positions can be relative to the more mainstream people who are now starting to support him: Paul is still a global-warming skeptic, calling fears about the problem "overblown" at a time when even Bush has recognized the reality of climate change.
Paul's solution to all environmental problems is essentially to do nothing and hope the market works everything out. Schrage, the Google executive, sounded skeptical of this approach and pointed out that market forces created the global-warming problem in the first place. "Climate change seems like something that wouldn't, indeed hasn't, been an issue that's been well addressed by market forces today," Schrage told Paul. "Seems like the perfect example of a market failure—that the external costs of pollution don't get absorbed by companies—and thus a natural place where some sort of collective action, government intervention, might be appropriate."
Paul disagreed, and suggested that a greater respect for private property in America, and a greater appreciation for how what one person does on his or her private property affects the environment on another person's private property, could somehow reverse environmental problems. When Schrage pointed out the international nature of the climate-change problem—the fact that factories in America can ultimately affect the weather in India—Paul answered: "If there is manmade pollution..."
Which was one rather big if.
He continued: "If there is man-made pollution, it might be in China and I know I'm not willing to tax you or send troops over there to close down plants."
This reluctance to force international change is consistent with Paul's philosophy of a limited role for the federal government, but it's worth pointing out the drawbacks of consistency: By that same limited-federal-government logic, Paul would not have sent federal troops to help integrate southern schools during the civil rights era, and would not want federal agencies to investigate violence against abortion clinics.
After his swing through California, I asked Paul, over the phone, about this problem—the way his strict adherence to an anti-federal-government, pro-local-control ideology can seem at best naive, and at worst callous, when it comes to big global problems or historical injustices in this country that have warranted federal intervention in the past.
Take abortion: Paul supports a state's right to do whatever it wants on the issue without any interference from the federal government. Is it fair to young American women, who have no control over which state they happen to be born in, to potentially live under wildly different laws on abortion? A certain percentage of women inevitably end up with very good reasons for needing abortions—incest, rape, danger to the mother's health—and a certain percentage of women aren't able to afford to travel the distance they might need to in order to get to a state with different laws.
"I'm looking at it from a constitutional viewpoint," Paul told me. "I don't think we have a choice. Yes, there would be differences, but that's the way it was intended. Say your state wants to legalize medical marijuana and Texas doesn't. I don't think the federal government should come in and tell your state what to do. It's not perfect, but that's the magnificence of the system we have."
Magnificence, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Marginalized segments of society are less likely to think of unfairness as magnificent.
Paul likes to say that freedom is popular—in fact, the phrase has basically become his campaign slogan—but the kind of freedom he's talking about can be indifferent and blind to history, just like the free market he venerates. It's not clear that the people, in Washington and elsewhere, who are now jumping behind him because of his antiwar stance, understand this aspect of his philosophy.
At the end of our interview, as he was heading off to the airport to catch a plane to South Carolina for a campaign event, I asked Paul what he thought his chances were of winning the Republican nomination. "Better than they were six months ago," he replied, and then he praised the internet for helping him compete at a level he never could have in 1988, when he was running for president as a Libertarian.
It's undeniable that Paul has been smart in harnessing the power of the internet, but he's not as much of a pioneer as he makes himself out to be on the campaign trail. At a fundraiser inside a fancy golf-course restaurant in Mountain View, he said of his surging internet popularity: "It's unique and nobody can even measure what's going on." But it's not unique: Dean experienced the same thing before flaming out in the Democratic primaries in 2004 (due in part to the type of onstage overexuberance that Paul studiously avoids). It's also not impossible to measure. It will be measured in the contributions Paul receives online over the next months, in the results of the upcoming straw poll in Iowa, and in public-opinion polls between now and the first Republican primaries.
What is unique about the Paul campaign is that a Republican candidate is wholeheartedly embracing the internet. In the four years since the Dean phenomenon, Democrats have largely welcomed the internet into their political process, and have so integrated the party's "netroots" into their race for the presidential nomination that last weekend in Chicago, almost all the Democratic presidential candidates appeared at a conference of liberal bloggers called YearlyKos (after the influential liberal blog, DailyKos). Republicans, on the other hand, still treat the web as something of unclear value, a scary place full of backtalk and hostile to top-down messaging. While Democrats last month participated in a CNN debate that featured questions asked by voters via YouTube submissions, Republicans have been balking at the idea of their own YouTube debate. It's currently scheduled for September 17, but so far only Ron Paul and McCain are certain to attend.
In fact, Paul's shrewdest move had nothing to do with getting ahead of other Republicans in terms harnessing the power of the internet. It was that he decided to run for president as a Republican rather than as a Libertarian. That got him into the pre-primary Republican debates, which gave him a national platform early on and created a virtuous cycle for his campaign: Coverage of Paul's unusual debate statements led people to go online to find out more about him, and then they donated money to him, which made Paul seem more viable than expected, which then earned him more coverage, at which point the cycle repeated.
The August 11 straw poll in Iowa will be the first test of whether this cycle has produced enough support for Paul to become a serious contender when Republicans are asked to vote for their best man. As part of a national effort to help Paul's chances in the straw poll, a lot of his Seattle-area supporters have been making calls to Iowa voters in recent weeks. Boyapati, the Google software engineer, hasn't had time to work the phones, but would if he could, and thinks that even if Paul doesn't do well in the straw poll, or does but then fails to win the Republican nomination, something important will have been accomplished. Something worth the investment of all this energy, money, and hope.
"I think he's still a long shot," Boyapati conceded to me. "But I think the most important thing is getting the ideas out to America—that the Constitution is important, and the war was wrong."