I have to admit that I kind of like Rep. Ron Paul. Partly it's that we're both from Pittsburgh, and both began our careers as paperboys for the Pittsburgh Press. More important, Paul is something unusual in politics. He appears to believe in something. His fundamental views have not changed since 1971, when he decided to run for Congress in Texas because President Nixon abandoned the gold standard.
I don't like labels, but in this case I'll use some. Paul, a Duke-trained physician, is an angry, apocalyptic, populist, hard-currency libertarian. He is against paper money, the Federal Reserve, the income tax, and most of the federal government's role in our lives, from fighting in Afghanistan to printing Social Security checks. Paul never saw an establishment he didn't loathe. Many of his ideas are unworkable, some are dangerous, and some of his supporters are conspiracy theorists so paranoid, they probably think this column is part of the Plot. But, as odd as it seems, Paul has become a player in Washington and at the grassroots. His emergence should be a lesson to rudderless Republicans. They don't want to scare away independent voters, but they need to find a way to emulate Paul's outsider's anger and his commitment to conservative essentials.
The last time Paul was center stage in politics, running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he flamed out. Even in New Hampshire, where the license plates read LIVE FREE OR DIE, he was seen as too weird and finished fifth. More recently he appeared on film fending off Sacha Baron Cohen (a.k.a. Brüno) in a motel room. It was not a funny scene.
Last week the indefatigable Paul was onstage again. After decades of trying, he finally succeeded in getting Congress to attack the Federal Reserve Board, or at least the legendary secrecy of its deliberations. A House committee approved Paul's bill to open the Fed's books to public audits, which would expose the bank's dealings with foreign banks, its emergency infusions of cash and credit into institutions here and abroad, and its decision making on our interest rates and other monetary tools. Paul's real aim was not just disclosure but destruction. If the backroom deals of the past two years are exposed, he figures, public outrage will overwhelm the Fed.
Fed chairman Ben Bernanke thinks public audits would destroy the bank's independence, but he was too busy fighting for his own political life to outmaneuver Paul. Though the mainstream consensus is that Bernanke (and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner) helped save the world economy from catastrophe, Paul is having none of it. By doubling the money supply and making extensive loans, Paul says, Bernanke's Fed has made "the entire federal government one giant toxic asset." The dollar will tank; inflation will return; the sun will set on what is left of the American empire—or at least so says Paul in his new bestseller, End the Fed. Somebody has to take the fall, and Bernanke—who has trillions of dollars at his disposal but not one dime of PAC money—could be the guy. Last week Paul's Senate friend, socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont, placed a "hold" on Bernanke's nomination for a second term, which means the chairman will need 60 votes to keep his job.
No one thinks Ron Paul is going to lead the GOP, let alone be president. He's 74 years old and just too…cout there. He is an obscure guy who waited patiently (if not quietly) for the cycle of history to come back around his way, and finally it did. We have been arguing about money, credit, and banks since the first days of the republic. Paul is a bargain-basement Jefferson for our time.
Still, the GOP needs to study Ron Paul, and learn. No one has better captured the sense of Main Street outrage over secret insider deals and Wall Street bonuses. No one has been more consistent about sticking to core conservative values—including the one that says the government shouldn't spend more money than it takes in. If the GOP is going to appeal to independent voters, it has to confront its own corporate allies. "Republicans need to find a populist edge again," says Craig Shirley, the author of Rendezvous With Destiny, a new account of Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. "Reagan spoke to the guy who thought he was being screwed by big business, by big government, by the big media." The good doctor, of all people, is showing Republicans the way. What they need is a candidate who embodies the spirit of Ron Paul. Just so long as it isn't Ron Paul.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.