Ron Paul Campaigns Through The Twilight Zone

The Libertarian icon stumps through the rain in Philadelphia. Supporters plan to write-in Paul, or vote for “Absolutely nobody.”

Mark Makela / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — Ron Paul is not running for president, his supporters probably won’t vote for anyone else, and at a rain-soaked rally on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Paul came as close as he ever has to admitting as much.

“We don’t know exactly what the outcome is,” Paul told the crowd at a location of special importance for the Constitution’s number one publicist. “But we do know that the continuation of the spirit of liberty will persist no matter what, and that’s what really counts as well.” He wore jeans and a windbreaker, not his usual roomy suit, and seemed put off by the rain. At one point he had to stop as a cascade of water hit the stage. The unlucky supporters were those who had paid in advance to sit in the middle seats, unprotected by tents.

The sight of a crowd always delights Paul, perhaps more than any other aspect of politics. Audiences who see him in person are the ones who will absorb his message — a message that, this time, was slightly gloomier than usual.

“This campaign has a few months left to it,” he said. “It’s not going to end like some people pretend.”

But it’s not going to end with the Republican nomination, a fact that was apparent to outsiders all along, but one that even some of the most zealous Paul supporters are now willing to admit. (Not, they said, that that will stop them from writing in the candidate’s name.) And the Texan’s campaign and career are in their twilight. Paul hasn’t suffered the sort of calamitous fall as Newt Gingrich, who has left his private sector activities in a bankrupt shambles, whose campaign is deep in debt to vendors, and whose candidacy has been reduced to the status of novelty. Paul’s campaign has always ridden a separate track to a destination all its own, and he’s not out of money. He isn’t exactly a protest candidate, though many of his views have been formed in direct protest to trends in mainstream politics. He hasn’t won a state and garners little attention from the media, but turns out large, enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes.

Paul sees himself as a messenger, as he has been for more than 40 years. The effectiveness of this role will be put to a final test after he concedes, probably sometime around the Republican National Convention. Now, the Paul plan is about legacy — for his son Rand and for his own stamp on the Republican Party. And people around him have already begun to look for a practical way to carry his agenda, and his movement, forward.

There are, a Republican strategist close to the campaign said, three basic pieces to the Paul plan, and perhaps the most mainstream of his causes, or at least the easiest to assimilate, is his hostility to the Federal Reserve Bank.

“First is obviously an understanding within large parts of the party about the role the Federal Reserve plays in undermining sound currency,” the strategist said.

“Second, Dr. Paul was a foundational figure in what became the Tea Party election of 2010. This election will live on in terms of elected officials at local, state and national levels who will fight for more fiscally responsible approaches and less debt,” he said, noting that Paulites have been running for office in parts of the country, something Paul told BuzzFeed was the “great success” of his campaign.

“Finally, Dr.Paul has helped bring libertarians into the Republican Party and these libertarians will shape the party at all levels for years to come,” the strategist said.

Out of these three, the most concrete is the audit of the Federal Reserve. Abolishing it entirely is a pie-in-the-sky proposition embraced solely by followers of Paul’s outré brand of Austrian economics, but an audit could be more palatable to mainstream conservatives.

Paul’s status as a “foundational figure” in the Tea Party is questionable, though it’s true that the wave of grassroots conservatives who flooded local and national politics in 2010 share much with his small-government ideals. And while libertarians in Paul’s mold have been springing up on the state and local levels, it remains to be seen how many will win their races in November. Paul World is a visible part of the influx of grassroots conservative activists into mainstream politics, but it doesn’t account for all of them — or even most of them.

What has become increasingly clear, though, is that Paul’s cadre of energized young supporters aren’t about to turn to mainstream politics. There was, last fall, some hand-wringing about the double-digit percentages of voters he commanded in some early-state polls. What will they do in November? Which side will claim them, or will they vote third party? How much do they matter? The answers are muddled, but what’s become clearer is that this base, though vocal, is not as big as it had seemed. Paul attracts thousands-strong audiences to his events, but then again, he only holds a handful of events every week — if that. And all the Paul supporters within driving distance make the trip. In other words, turning out a crowd of 4,300 in Philadelphia (the number claimed by the campaign) means less than it might with another candidate.

And incorporating that base into the larger Republican coalition won’t happen, since many of Paul’s supporters never participated in ordinary American politics before and don’t plan to again.

At an afterparty for Paul’s Philadelphia rally, Paulites young and old drank at a well-appointed restaurant and bar attached to a downtown Marriott (a chain on whose board Mitt Romney once sat). Bearded, dreadlocked, pierced, clad in Ron Paul rain ponchos and sweatshirts, they occupied the blandly upscale space with the nonchalance of castaways from a distant shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine them enthusiastically backing Mitt Romney or, for that matter, any politician like him.

Asked whom he would vote for if Ron Paul was no longer a candidate, 23-year-old Philadelphia native Josh Roth said “nobody. Absolutely nobody. I voted for Obama last election, and I will not do that again.”

“I would be just as much for Gary Johnson, honestly,” Roth said. “You know what, everyone who’s been running as a Democrat, most of the people with the exception of Ron Paul who have been running as Republicans, I do not trust.”

“It’s not necessarily the fact that [Paul’s] behind as much as what he’s already done to change everything,” said his friend Kevin, 22, who didn’t want his last name used. Kevin is one of the Paul supporters who has the cachet of having voted for him in 2008 as well.

“I think I’d probably just write him in. And after that, it would probably be the same as 2008 until now. There’s still active protests and stuff, and that’s what we try to do with our free time,” said Stacey Litz, a young woman with purplish hair who runs a website called “Fuck the PPA” (the Philadelphia Parking Authority).

Shawn House of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was holding a giant blow-up pretzel at the rally. He runs a company called “Hempzels,” which sells pretzels enriched with hemp imported from Canada. Like many Paulites, he charges the media with falsely downplaying Paul’s chances of winning the nomination.

“Nobody’s counting [Paul] because they’re anointing Romney,” House said.

But if it comes down to it, “I’m going to write Ron Paul in. That’s saying I don’t agree with the status quo.”

Publicly, Paul says he is focusing on the present.

“Legacy should be somebody else’s business,” he told BuzzFeed at a press conference held in a tent behind the stage after his speech. “All I do is try to do what I said in my speech: look for the truth and promote good economic policy, promote the Constitution.”

“The idea of a legacy, somebody else would have to deal with that.”

Paul says he’s unconcerned about the future of his young support base.

“I think they’re going to do exactly what they’re doing, and that’s where I’ve been very encouraged because they’re not getting directions from me or a national organization, they’re doing it spontaneously,” he said.

“They’re getting very much involved in political parties, they’re running for office,” Paul said, highlighting Paul supporters who have snagged offices in state parties and state legislatures. “That part will continue, it won’t be run top-down.”

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