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Ron Paul Country

By Blake D. Dvorak

Chicago

The video presentation had just ended and the words flashed across the screen:

"Are you ready, Chicago?"

Chicago was. Packed into the Hyatt Regency's Grand Ballroom the several hundred cheering, chanting fans were riled up - except for the two infant twins in their double baby carriage. They were sound asleep as their mother cheered along with the rest.

A man in an "Investigate 9/11" black t-shirt was walking up and down the aisles handing out fake dollar bills with Dick Cheney's face where Washington's should have been. In the corner of the bill, instead of a dollar amount, it read "9-11." Above the picture, where it should have read United States of America, it read "Unmask State Sponsored Terrorism."

I was in Ron Paul country. A strange land inhabited by 9/11 conspiracy theorists and suburban families who clothe their infant twins in "Ron Paul Revolution" pajamas; those who despise what the current administration has done in Iraq (heck, what the Woodrow Wilson administration did in Europe) and those who despise Hillary Clinton; those who live on the fringe and those who live next door.

An odd bunch, to be sure, but one that can really belt out the Star-Spangled Banner.

Other than their shared patriotism, what unites them is the man they affectionately refer to a "Dr. Paul," the long-shot libertarian Republican whose supporters clog Internet straw polls and guard their hero's image against what they see as a purposeful marginalization by the media. Maybe they have a point. The only other press I see is a local network camera crew.

He takes the stage just then and the crowd explodes to its feet. From my vantage point at the edge of the crowd (standing room only) I can't see over the cheering mass, many now on their chairs. But I wonder: This, for a small, aging congressman from Texas who has no chance, in this cycle or the next, of ever being president? As I look around I notice the crowd doesn't care. Caucuses, primaries, polls - what are they compared to the "Champion of the Constitution"?

Eventually the crowd quiets down and the ordinary, frail-looking Dr. Paul begins. The first thing I notice is that as a speaker, Paul is unexceptional. He rarely changes cadence, his applause lines are adorned with a simple up tick in volume and delivered clumsily, almost as if Paul suddenly remembers to throw out some red meat.

"Personal liberty is economic liberty and true freedom and following the Constitution," he begins, "means that we will be bringing our troops home." The immediate crowd explosion was deafening, but it was just the beginning.

"I ask every young person I meet, 'What is it you're interested in?'" Paul says. "They do talk about freedom; they do talk about the Constitution. But I think the whole concept of liberty, of allowing individuals to lead their own lives and not be pestered by the government to tell them what to do." And then the meat: "And I think also the young people sort of like the idea that the Internet ought to be left free!" Pandemonium ensues.

Paul was certainly warming up, but so was the crowd.

"When we become sticklers for the Constitution, we will find out that the method whereby we collect taxes, we will find out it is absolutely unconstitutional" -- and again, the red meat -- "we will get rid of the IRS!" Epileptic seizures throughout the hall.

And so I learn my first lesson about Paul and his supporters: While they are all fervently anti-war, judging by crowd noise alone, it is not the biggest issue with them.

Of course in this style of ad-lib stump speech, there is a dangerous chance for rhetorical mistakes. Rookies in their first presidential primary can sink their candidacies with one ill-chosen phrase. But Paul, who barely registers in the polls, is pleasantly free of speaking carefully. His proposals come full-throated and without qualifications:

What do we replace the 16th Amendment with? "Nothing!"

What do we replace the "unconstitutional" Federal Reserve with? "The gold standard!"

But as appealing as several of these policy prescriptions might be for some conservatives, such as leaving the United Nations for good, Paul always manages to go too far.

For instance, the prescription drug companies, he says, "are no better than the military industrial complex," which is one of the far left's most cherished phrases.

Another example: "A lot fewer lives died on 9/11 than they do in less than a month on our highways," a comment guaranteeing political oblivion for anyone serious about reaching the White House.

These statements are just part of the reason most Republicans will keep a safe distance from Paul's candidacy. The shame of it is that there are probably a lot of Republicans who share Paul's "minding-our-own-business" flavor of foreign policy and economic libertarianism. It's just that so much of it comes off as something Noam Chomsky might have written 30 years ago.

As much as many Republicans might want out of the United Nations, most would balk at abandoning Israel to the mullahs, or Taiwan to the Chinese. In either case, it is not terrorists reacting to some real or imagined slight by the "Great Satan," but sovereign states whose belligerence is checked only by American power.

The other part of Paul's candidacy hurting its appeal with the larger electorate is that it's a circus of ideologues each with their own pet causes. Paul deftly satisfies the factions individually with his peculiar politics, but what this amounts to is a grab-bag of radical policy proposals. Some might say that this is libertarianism or "true Republicanism," but the fact is that it leads to a chaotic campaign, whose only guiding light is some mythical American past where an unsullied constitutional order reigned. Not to mention that Paul brings out the kind of person who spends their days pining for the gold standard and that's not the person you want your daughter bringing home.

It does, however, make for fun political theater. A Ron Paul rally is stage of characters. There's the aforementioned guy wearing the black 9/11 t-shirt who tells me he supports Paul's call to do away with the Federal Reserve. (For the record, Paul does not endorse the idea that 9/11 was a conspiracy.) Beside him is the young financial broker volunteering his time for the first real political experience of his life, because he likes Paul's promise of "sticking to the Constitution." The only thing they have in common with each other, it seems, is their passion for Dr. Paul, and that seems to be enough.

Speaking of whom, Paul is nearing the end of his 40-minute speech. "There is not enough noise coming out of Washington to drown our message. Our message will be heard."

As if in answer, the hall begins to seethe in a chorus of wild cheering. Then comes the chanting: "Ron Paul! Ron Paul! Ron Paul!" By now, even the twins are awake - and holding their ears.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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