By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006; D01
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 the Federal Reserve. He'd reinstate the gold standard. He'd get rid of the Department of Education and leave the business of 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," says Paul on a recent weekday. He's seated in his congressional office near a sign than says, "DON'T STEAL; THE GOVERNMENT HATES COMPETITION . "
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 and Ronald Reagan and Rosa Parks. He says the medals are an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money and once suggested each House member instead contribute 100 bucks from his or her own pocket.
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 asks. "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 those periods. 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 Ron Paul something of a refreshing peculiarity. He continually bucks the wishes of Republican leaders -- so much so, Paul recalls, that once while exhorting every other Republican to vote the party line, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that 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," says 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, traveling the country and speaking to crowds as small as 10. His iconoclasm may explain why, despite his years in Congress -- first in the late '70s and early '80s, and more recently since 1997 -- Paul doesn't hold a leadership post, doesn't chair a committee or subcommittee. He sees this as the price of being right.
"I never had a goal of working up the seniority ladder," he says.
Paul has an easy chuckle and a down-home, friendly manner that tempers his strong language. (In his columns, which appear online and are sometimes published in local newspapers, he pronounces a proposed government program "Orwellian" and calls former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan a "master of evasion." He once said on C-SPAN he feared being "bombed by the federal government at another Waco.")
He is father to five, grandfather to 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 for free.
In Texas's 14th District, which runs along the northern Gulf Coast and includes the cities of Galveston and Victoria, Paul is either a beloved figure or a mystifying one. He calls himself the "taxpayers' best friend," and this has led him to controversial stands, such as voting against federal farming subsidies despite the wide swaths of agricultural land in his district. Because he won't cooperate with fellow Republicans in the House 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," says John W. Hancock Jr., a rice 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 also a proponent of gun rights and he personally opposes abortion, though he thinks the matter should be left to the states.
"He's just consistent, consistent, consistent," says Debra Medina, the 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."
Republican Party leaders supported a rival Republican in 1996, when Paul campaigned to return to Congress after a 12-year absence. Paul proved himself to be a strong fundraiser, gathering much of his money from out-of-state donors. He won a primary runoff, then eked out a three-point victory against his Democratic opponent in the general election.
The next time around, Democrats made him a top target, supporting a rice farmer named Loy Sneary. (Be "leery of Sneary," Paul warned. "Be cheery about Sneary," his opponent replied.) Paul won again. Since then, his margin of victory has gotten bigger in every election. This time around, he faces a Democrat named Shane Sklar, who is trying to paint Paul as out of touch with his district.
Paul's wife of nearly 50 years, Carol, quilts and came up with the idea to put together cookbooks that his campaign sends to constituents, many of whom also receive cards on their birthdays. His campaign Web site recently featured a recipe for chicken salad casserole, "a favorite of Brazoria County Republican Women." Paul almost always goes home to Lake Jackson on weekends.
"He doesn't want Potomac fever -- he thinks it's very contagious," says Carol Paul, who happens to be in Washington on a visit.
"I have a meeting with veterans on Saturday, and I have to check my tomato plants," the congressman says.
Ron 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 Food and Drug Administration and its "health nannies." He says that decades of government programs can soften Americans' sense of personal responsibility and that the free market can do a better job of keeping people safe and healthy than the government can.
He also 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."
Mainstream party platforms are riddled with inconsistencies; Paul tries to run what he believes is a straight course through every vote. Smaller government is better. That's why he winds up aligned with the most liberal of Democrats and the most conservative of Republicans. He takes inspiration from free-market economist Ludwig von Mises, whose photograph is mounted on a wall by his desk.
"He's like a gyroscope," says Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), who is allied with Paul in opposition to the Iraq war. "No matter what happens, boom , he comes back up and goes exactly where he wants to go."
Paul doesn't just question conventional wisdom. He stomps all over it. According to him, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery. He often attempts to prove his political theories by pointing to how things used to be. For instance, the federal government banning drugs like heroin doesn't work for the same reasons Prohibition didn't. The IRS doesn't need to exist for the same reasons it didn't exist before.
"We had a good run from 1776 to 1913," he says, referring to the years before the modern income tax. "We didn't have it; we did pretty well."
As for Social Security, "we didn't have it until 1935," Paul says. "I mean, do you read stories about how many people were laying in the streets and dying and didn't have medical treatment? . . . Prices were low and the country was productive and families took care of themselves and churches built hospitals and there was no starvation."
("Where to begin with this one?" asks Michael Katz, a historian of poverty at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied charity case records from the early 20th century. "The stories just break your heart, the kind of suffering that people endured. . . . Stories of families that had literally no cash and had to kind of beg to get the most minimal forms of food, who lived in tiny, little rooms that were ill-heated and ill-ventilated, who were sick all the time, who had meager clothing . . .")
Paul views his opposition to the status quo practically. He'd prefer no federal income tax, but barring that, he'd love the government to cut spending enough to bring the income tax rate down to 2 percent. He envisions a transition period for eradicating the Federal Reserve and for Social Security, to ensure that no one is cheated of the money they put in.
He figures party leaders get irritated with him sometimes, but for the most part, they leave him alone. On his opposition to war in Iraq, he told a radio interviewer a few years ago, "I'm generally very much ignored." He says he doesn't trade votes and as a result is rarely pressured.
Still, he says, if his fellow Republicans are "very desperate," he may allow himself to be talked into changing a "no" vote to "present."
Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.