Dana Milbank
Opinion writer September 21, 2011

Just 15 seconds into a question-and-answer session with reporters Wednesday morning, Ron Paul found a way to work in a mention of the Austrian School of economics.

From there, he moved inexorably through the Paul oeuvre: the need for the gold standard, the problem with energy-efficient light bulbs, why Greece should declare bankruptcy, why Grover Cleveland was his favorite president, and how our economy is collapsing “just like the Soviet system.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“I mean, how many people have read ‘Human Action’?” the Republican presidential candidate asked, referring to an economic treatise from the 1940s by one Ludwig von Mises. “How many people have studied Mises and Hayek and Rothbard and Sennholz? … A lot of people just flat out don’t understand what I’m talking about.”

He’s right about that. Rarely does a man go far in public life hawking the sort of oddities that the gadfly from Texas does. And yet, in a sense, Ron Paul is winning the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

Paul won’t be the president, or even the party nominee, but that was never his goal. He aimed to shift the debate toward his exotic economic theories, and by that standard he has prevailed.

The former obstetrician fathered the Tea Party. His son won election to the Senate. Republican leaders in Congress have joined Paul’s crusade against the Federal Reserve. And his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination are stealing his ideas.

“The success of this message,” Paul said over his bacon and eggs at Wednesday’s Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast, “is way beyond my expectations. Who would’ve ever dreamed that, after 100 years, we’d be talking about the Federal Reserve at debates? I mean, this is fantastic.”

A few weeks ago, the Post ombudsman questioned why the paper’s reporting on Paul had been so “sparse.” To this, there are two answers. Last time, in 2008, Paul was ignored because his ideas sounded crazy. This time, he’s being ignored because his ideas have become commonplace. What’s changed is not Paul but the party: Nearly a quarter-century after he quit the GOP to run for president as a Libertarian (he told me years ago that it was an “academic exercise”), he has brought the Republicans to him.

That may or may not be a good thing, but Paul has proven that issues can triumph. His campaigns have been absent of personality – his or anybody else’s. When I asked him at breakfast about photos showing Texas Gov. Rick Perry getting in his face at a debate, Paul downplayed the conflict: “It’s a friendly tap, punching the guy in the chest,” he explained.

Asked about Perry’s description of the Fed chairman’s actions as “treasonous,” Paul deflected: “[Ben] Bernanke isn’t the problem. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 is the problem.” Toward the end of the hour-long session, he observed: “I don’t know if I’ve said anything negative about the president since I’ve been here. Probably not, because I usually don’t.” Indeed, he hadn’t.

Instead, he delivered his trademark message of doom. “We’re in a big mess,” he began. “Personal liberty is under attack. Our financial system is under attack.” Matter-of-fact observations continued: “Our foreign policy is a shambles. ... We’ve consumed our wealth. ... We are destroying our currency.... Total failure. ... It’s all going to end.”

In between the apocalyptic predictions came quirky libertarian tidbits, such as “the Austrian economists predicted [that] the artificial pseudo-gold-standard wouldn’t last,” and “a draft is an enslavement.” Asked which Democratic president he most admired, Paul instead offered up the late H.R. Gross, a Republican congressman who once tied the House in knots.

That’s a revealing choice, because Paul cares more about theory than power. “I have one goal in life politically,” he explained, “and the goal is to make this a better country, change economic policy, change foreign policy, change the monetary policy and explain to people why we have booms and busts.” Actually, that’s five goals, but Paul says his ambition is being realized. “The issues have come our way,” he said. “The attitude of the whole country is shifting in our direction.”

Exhibit A: A letter sent Monday by Republican leaders to Bernanke urging the independent body not to stimulate the economy. “It should’ve been said about 30 years ago or 40 years ago,” Paul said.

Exhibit B: Perry’s “treason” talk. Was Perry co-opting Paul’s anti-Fed message? “Co-opting might be a little bit strong, but, yes, he knows what people are thinking about,” Paul said. “That’s how politicians operate. ... I think it reflects the changing attitudes.”

For Paul, that is validation enough.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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