Texan walks his own path
Ron Paul: Good ol' American who knows how to say no
Jul. 16, 2006 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - Republican Ron Paul missed out on the 19th century, but he admires it from afar. He speaks lovingly of the good old days before things like Social Security and Medicaid existed, before the federal government outlawed drugs like heroin.
In his legislative fantasies, the amiable Texas congressman would do away with the CIA and Federal Reserve. He would reinstate the gold standard. He would get rid of the Education Department and leave schooling to local governments because he believes that's what the Constitution intended.
"Article 1, Section 8 gives me zero amount of authority to do anything about public education," Paul said in his office near a sign saying, "DON'T STEAL; THE GOVERNMENT HATES COMPETITION."
They call him 'Dr. No'
Paul, 70, has earned the nickname "Dr. No" for his habit of voting against just about anything that he sees as government overreach or that interferes with the free market. No to the Iraq war. No to a federal ban on same-sex marriage. No to a congressional gold medal for Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Rosa Parks. He says the medals are an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money.
Last year, Congress decided to send billions of dollars to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Guess how Ron Paul voted?
"Is bailing out people that chose to live on the coastline a proper function of the federal government?" he asked. "Why do people in Arizona have to be robbed in order to support the people on the coast?"
There have been periods in history when the maverick congressman was not such a rare breed, but this is not one of them. Democrats and Republicans have been quite disciplined in recent years: When party leaders say "jump," the savvy congressman had better inquire how high.
This makes the presence of a politician like Paul something of a refreshing peculiarity. He continually bucks the wishes of Republican leaders, so much so, Paul says, that once while exhorting every other Republican to vote the party line, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich said Ron Paul was exempt.
Paul is not always alone in his dissent, but more than anyone else in Congress, he is legendary for it. "When I'm the only no vote," said fiscal conservative Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., "I can usually rest assured he's on a plane somewhere."
Paul left his party and ran for president in 1988 on the Libertarian ticket. His iconoclasm may explain why, despite his years in Congress. first in the late 1970s and early '80s, and more recently since 1997, Paul doesn't hold a leadership post nor chair a committee or subcommittee. He sees this as the price of being right.
He is father of five, grandfather of 17, and delivered something like 4,000 babies during his career as an obstetrician and gynecologist. Before he largely retired from his practice in 1996, he refused on principle to accept Medicare and Medicaid, and sometimes treated patients free.
Mixed reviews at home
In Texas' 14th District, which runs along the northern Gulf Coast, Paul is either a beloved figure or a mystifying one. He calls himself the "taxpayers' best friend," which has led him to controversial stands, such as voting against federal farming subsidies despite his district's wide swaths of agricultural land. Because he won't cooperate with fellow House Republicans unless a bill is in line with his principles, some constituents feel he puts his libertarian agenda over the district's needs.
"He's certainly the taxpayer's friend if the taxpayer doesn't want to get anything done," said John Hancock Jr., a farmer and banker in El Campo. "All he does is go to Washington and write articles and vote no."
Paul's supporters see him as principled. He is known for constituent services such as getting medals for veterans who never received theirs. He is a proponent of gun rights. He personally opposes abortion but says the matter should be left to the states.
"He's just consistent, consistent, consistent," said Debra Medina, Wharton County Republican chairwoman. "He always talks about the Constitution and what the federal government ought to be doing, and he consistently articulates this basic mistrust of big government, which I think most people have."
Paul may seem an unlikely advocate for the repeal of federal drug laws, but this stance stems from the same impulse that leads him to call for the abolition of the FDA and its "health nannies." Decades of government programs can soften Americans' sense of personal responsibility, he says, and the free market can do a better job of safeguarding people than the government can.
He wants America to withdraw from the United Nations and NATO. He is against the government's "delusional, feel-good" policies of giving aid to needy countries in places like Africa; instead, private citizens and private groups should give charity if they want to. He has written that Americans "don't need to be forced to pay for foreign welfare at the barrel of a government gun."
Smaller government is better. That's why he winds up aligned with the most liberal of Democrats and the most conservative of Republicans.
He doesn't just question conventional wisdom, he stomps on it. He says Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways to get rid of slavery. He often attempts to prove his theories by pointing to how things used to be. For instance, banning drugs like heroin doesn't work for the same reasons Prohibition didn't.