TAMPA, Fla. — An hour and seven minutes is a long time for a speech in American politics. It’s not unheard of for Ron Paul, though, and the 77-year-old retiring congressman and two-time presidential nominee made the full use of his last campaign rally in Tampa to take his final shots at an establishment that never quite delivered on promises to include him and his libertarian followers.
Paul’s rally at the University of Southern Florida’s SunDome drew over 7,000 enthusiastic fans, an event staged in response to a Republican convention that’s so far proving largely fruitless for the Paul movement: Two Paul delegations were shut out of the convention entirely, and Ron Paul himself is not speaking: he told the New York Times this weekend that the Romney campaign offered him a speaking slot on condition that he provide his remarks to them in advance for their approval. Paul declined. He’ll still be honored in a video tribute on Tuesday night.
His convention presence was one of the first subjects Paul covered in his wide-ranging speech, which went everywhere from Paul’s usual material about monetary policy and the Federal Reserve to a passionate defense of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and alleged leaker Bradley Manning. Paul came onstage after over 4 hours of other speakers to thunderous, sustained applause.
“Today I was very excited to get a call from the RNC,” Paul said “They said they changed their mind. They’re going to give me a whole hour and I can say whatever I want - tomorrow night!” (Tomorrow being Monday, the day that the RNC has no events due to Tropical Storm Isaac).
“Just kidding,” Paul concluded.
Paul directly referenced the rules change that may keep similarly insurgent delegates from succeeding in future elections. He seemed stung by the disappointments, after the concerted effort his campaign made to compromise with the Romney campaign and to keep their delegates under control.
The RNC “learned how to bend rules, break rules, and now they want to rewrite the rules,” Paul said.
“That’s what we have to stop.”
He also nodded to the view, common among Paul supporters, that votes had been miscounted or improperly counted in primary states.
“Ultimately numbers do count,” he said. “And numbers do count even when they don’t count all the votes as well. Because we do have the numbers!”
Paul may be angry that after years of effort and a number of compromises, the insiders are not letting him in. But he’s also now able to talk about the lists of topics he cares about without a second thought; it no longer matters if the Romney people think he’s too far out. He took full advantage on Sunday, filling his 67 minutes with a laundry list of historical references, bits of his stump speech, and nostalgic philosophizing.
Paul also wandered into territory that makes it clear why the Romney campaign, known for trying to control the message as much as possible, would be wary of having him speak unscripted.
Bradley Manning, Paul said, “is in the military so there are probably some debates on exactly how and what to do, but let me tell you: Bradley Manning didn’t kill anybody, Bradley Manning hasn’t caused the death of anybody, and what he has exposed, he is the equivalent to Daniel Ellsberg, who told us the truth about Vietnam.”
And: “I’m afraid that if we took a poll across the country and said ‘Should we try Assange for treason?’ that most Americans would say oh yes he’s a bad guy, he’s telling us all these secrets. But guess what, he’s an Australian citizen.”
On “personal liberty”: “When it returns, once again you’ll be able to drink raw milk. You’ll be able to make a rope out of hemp. You’ll be able to feel secure in your house because the federal government will not be able to spy on you.”
On foreign policy: “People say that If people listened to me, Osama bin-Laden would still be alive. You know what I say? So would the 3000 people killed on 9/11!”
On the threat of fascism: “I do think we have to worry about fascism, an expansion of what we have which is corporatism.”
Paul and his team spent much of the election cycle gambling that the establishment would look past his unorthodox positions and toward his army of young supporters, a demographic infusion to an aging party.
Paul talked about the huge crowds he attracts at college campus.
“Wouldn’t you say that if there was a party that said ‘We have an open tent, we want new people to come in, we want to appeal to young people’ — don’t you think they would be begging and pleading that they come into the big tent?” he asked rhetorically.
“We will get into the tent, believe me. Because we will become the tent.”
Becoming the tent is a task that will now fall to Paul’s son Rand, the junior senator from Kentucky, and on a host of younger candidates and members of Congress who count Paul as an influence. The worry is that Paul’s devoted fans will stop participating in mainstream politics entirely — and indeed, nearly all of the voters BuzzFeed spoke with on Sunday and at Saturday’s unofficial Paul Festival said they would either write in Paul’s name or vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.
Still, the Paul effort this year has been anything but a failure. He has written esoteric causes, like auditing the Federal Reserve and even restoring the gold standard, into the Republican Party platform. He’s encouraged radical libertarians to become register as Republicans. And he’s succeeded at staying in the spotlight as one of the most offbeat mainstream politicians in America.
Paul himself seemed troubled by the looming fact that the movement he started will soon find itself leaderless.
“The worst thing we could do is be silent,” Paul said.
He left the stage to even more thunderous applause.