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And little wonder. In the 1990s, conservative Republicans rose to power by relentlessly attacking Big Government. Yet the minute they took control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, they kicked out the jams on even a semblance of fiscal responsibility, signing off on the Medicare prescription drug benefit and building literal and figurative bridges to nowhere. From 2001 to 2008, federal outlays will have grown by an estimated 29 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
The biggest Big Government expansion during the Bush era is the one that Americans now despise most: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose direct costs are already an estimated $800 billion, plus 4,000 American lives. Paul's steadfast bring-the-troops-home stance -- not just from Iraq, but Korea and Japan as well -- is the major engine powering his grass-roots success as ostensibly antiwar Democrats in the majority can't or won't do anything on Capitol Hill.
But if war were the only answer for his improbable run, why Ron Paul instead of the perennial peacenik Dennis Kucinich, the Democratic congressman from Ohio whose apparent belief in UFOs is only slightly less kooky than his belief in the efficacy of socialized health care?
Part of the reason is Republican muscle memory. Paul's "freedom message" is the direct descendant of Barry Goldwater's once-dominant GOP philosophy of libertarianism (which Ronald Reagan described in a 1975 Reason magazine interview as "the very heart and soul of conservatism"). But that tradition has been under a decade-long assault by religious-right moralists, neoconservative interventionists and a governing coalition that has learned to love Medicare expansion and appropriations pork.
So Paul's challenge represents a not-so-lonely GOP revival of unabashed libertarianism. All his major Republican competitors want to double down on Bush's wars; none is stressing any limited-government themes, apart from half-hearted promises to prune pork and tinker on the margins of Social Security.
College kids (a key bloc of Paul's support) have seen no recent evidence that the GOP has anything to do with libertarianism. Yet there's no reason to believe that Democrats will do anything useful about the government intrusion that so many young people abhor: the drug war, federal bans on same-sex marriage, online poker prohibitions, open-ended deployments in Iraq.
This is the mile-wide gap in the Maginot line of "serious" Washington politics. Undergrads aren't the only ones weary of war and moralizing, and more interested in exploring new frontiers of technology and culture than in heeding the stale noise coming from inside the Beltway.
More than at any other time over the past two decades, Americans are hungering for the politics and freewheeling fun of libertarianism. And with the dreary prospect of a Giuliani vs. Clinton death match in 2008, that hunger is likely to grow even faster than the size of the federal government or the casualty toll in Iraq. Ron Paul may lose next year's battle -- though not without a memorable fight -- but the laissez-faire agitators he has helped energize will find themselves at the leading edge of American politics and culture for years to come.
Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch are editors at Reason magazine.