The Times finally allows someone to mention Ron Paul

by | Jan 25, 2007 | Stress Blog | 1 comment

January 23, 2007

Not Your Average Republican Presidential Candidate

By Bruce Bartlett

The other day, I went by to visit Congressman Ron Paul, Republican of Texas. My first “real” job in Washington was working for him when he was initially elected to Congress in 1976, and I wanted to see how he was doing. Little did I realize when I made the appointment that I would be talking to a candidate for president.

I remember clearly when I first heard of Ron. It was in an article in The Washington Post on April 5, 1976, which said that he had just won a special election. My memory was that he had said he was to the right of Barry Goldwater, which sounded pretty good to me. But rereading the article, I see that Ron had not said this; it was his opponent, Bob Gammage, a Democrat. The charge was not altogether true, as I eventually discovered.

I was looking for a job at the time, so I sent a resume and a couple of articles I had published to Ron’s office and about a month later got an interview with him. I remember that his office had a complete set of books distributed by the Foundation for Economic Education, in Irvington, N. Y., the most prominent free market think tank in the United States at that time.

This was a good sign because I had published two articles in the foundation’s journal, The Freeman. I think Ron was impressed by this, so he hired me as a legislative assistant. I spent most of my time monitoring his principal committee, which was then known as the House Committee on Banking and Currency. With inflation climbing through the roof, it was an interesting assignment.

Ron saw the roots of the inflation problem in fiat money — currency not backed by gold or other tangible assets. At the time, this was a controversial position. But there was no denying that inflation had accelerated in 1971, when the United States cut the dollar’s last link to gold. This meant that the Federal Reserve Board was no longer constrained by how much it could increase the money supply, which increased rapidly along with inflation.

Although few economists supported a return to the gold standard, as Ron did (and still does), his critique of the Fed for creating the inflation problem dovetailed with that of “monetarists” like Milton Friedman, the late University of Chicago economist. At that time, most economists thought something other than the money supply was the main cause of inflation — budget deficits, higher prices for oil engineered by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, bad harvests, whatever.

The Fed chairman at that time was Arthur Burns, who had been Friedman’s teacher at Rutgers and Columbia. I remember being impressed by Burns’s appearances before the banking committee, in which he would take long pauses to fiddle with his pipe before answering questions — giving himself time to think and using up his questioners’ time as well. Burns’s performances were masterful, but unilluminating. He always found some way to blame inflation on something other than Fed policy.

Since Burns was a Republican who had been appointed by Richard Nixon, criticizing him wasn’t really in the Republican playbook. But Ron was adamant that inflation had no other cause than too much money and that Burns could stop it if he wanted to. Most economists now agree with this view. That period of inflation ended only when Burns’s successor, Paul Volcker, slowed growth of the money supply.

In other ways as well, Ron was not your average Republican or a typical member of Congress. Most Republicans reflexively voted whatever way the White House told them to — Gerald Ford was still president, and party unity was the order of the day. And most congressmen hate being on the wrong side of a lopsided vote. But Ron voted his conscience and was often the only “nay” vote out of 435.

Since Ron is a medical doctor, he became known as “Dr. No,” which delighted him. He hadn’t run for Congress as a stepping stone to becoming a lobbyist, but to define the political spectrum by showing how a consistent libertarian would vote. This meant being for the free market and against gun control — conventional right-wing positions — but also being in favor of drug legalization and nonintervention in foreign affairs — more commonly left-wing positions.

This is still Ron’s philosophy. It is why he has consistently opposed the war in Iraq, making him something of a darling among those on the left who see no connection between Ron’s free market views and his antiwar position. But to him and other libertarians the issues are one and the same. They’re against unjustified government intervention at home or abroad.

Unfortunately, Ron was defeated in the general election the same year he was first elected. But he came back two years later, in 1978, and served until 1984, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination to fill a U.S. Senate seat in Texas. In 1988, he was the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, garnering 432,000 votes nationally.

In 1996, Ron was re-elected to Congress in a different district. (Tom Delay had his old district.) The Republican leadership wasn’t too happy to have him back, however, because they had persuaded the Democratic congressman in Ron’s new district to switch parties with a promise that he would run unopposed. But Ron had made no such promise.

Ron upset the Republican leadership’s plans to get other Democrats to switch party and embarrassed them by winning the Republican nomination and the general election. When he came back to the House, his fellow Republicans denied him the seniority to which he was entitled because of his previous service, and generally treated him as an outcast.

Other members of Congress might have been bitter over such treatment, but not Ron. He didn’t give up a successful medical practice to be a congressman because he craved the perks of office, but because he had a point to make. As long as he can continue making it, he is perfectly happy.

When I asked Ron why he kept running for office despite having little to show for it in terms of legislation or other tangible accomplishments, he said it was because he enjoyed the job. He gets to say what he thinks, meets interesting people, and shows that honesty and adherence to principle are not the political albatrosses that most politicians think they are. It’s worth noting that in 2006, when Republicans were losing control of Congress, Ron got 60 percent of the vote in his district.

One thing that came through to me as I was talking to Ron was his similarity to Ronald Reagan in a key respect. Reagan always said that he had already been a success in life before deciding to run for president — he had been a big Hollywood star, of course. Because being president didn’t define him as a person, it was easier for him to cope with the pressure of being in the White House.

Ron Paul had been a successful surgeon who delivered some 4,000 babies before giving up his practice. So like Reagan, he does not regard his current position as the pinnacle of his career. To him, serving in politics at the national level is more a privilege than a job.

During my visit, Ron had to leave for a vote, and that prevented my asking him about his future — according to press reports he has formed an exploratory committee to seek the Republican presidential nomination. Obviously, this is a long shot, but at least he has the advantage of being the only announced candidate in either party who has already received a political party’s presidential nomination.

In any other year, one would automatically dismiss Ron’s chances as quixotic at best. But 2008 is shaping up as an unusually fluid year politically, with no clear front-runner in either party, and new candidates emerging almost weekly. And the Internet has leveled the playing field in many ways. It may be a year when anything can happen.

Also: Brian Doherty interviews Dr. Paul here.

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