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Published: 11/9/2011

COMMENTARY

Paul's message of small government largely a winner

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

NASHUA, N.H. -- The trees are ablaze with yellows and reds and, since an early snowfall the night before, blanketed with white.

All that color in southern New Hampshire in mid-autumn, however, is more than a visual display. It underlines how mixed up the seasons are -- how mixed up our politics are -- in the final months before the first presidential primary.

But this also is the season for Ron Paul, the iconoclastic Texas congressman who for a quarter century has been railing about government spending, the Federal Reserve, the overextension of American military power, and the gold standard. Until recently, he has been relegated to the periphery of our politics.

Now, Dr. Paul, an obstetrician and midwife to a movement, is suddenly front and center, though not exactly occupying the center of our politics.

Which may be why, well before 7:30 on a recent morning, several hundred of Nashua's respectables gathered in the early chill to hear Dr. Paul talk about interest rates, the perfidy of the Fed, and an economy where the overlords are suggesting that working hard and saving are wrong.

"We spent too much, we ran up a debt, we regulated too much, and then we said we can't handle it all so we'll depend on the Fed," Dr. Paul said.

There wasn't a set of notes in sight, nor in his suit pocket. He's given this riff for decades. "We continue to spend, the deficit has exploded, we continued to borrow, and we continue to tax -- and we wonder why we haven't had a recovery."

"He reminds us that the government has a limited role, not an expansive role," said Ovide Lamontagne, unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate here in 1996 and a candidate again in 2012. Mr. Lamontagne is not committed to any presidential candidate, but he regards the Paul candidacy as "a statement of empowerment, not powerlessness."

Nobody is predicting that Dr. Paul will prevail in January's primary. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has roots too deep in this region and is in too strong a position, at least now. But the Nashua crowd wasn't full only of the converted. It was crowded, too, with the curious.

One of them was Bob Hallowell, president of the Nashua School Board, so far uncommitted to any candidate. He's thinking about Dr. Paul because he's "the only one who got the financial crisis right."

Another was Davi Peters, a Nashua attorney. "I'm just curious," she said. "I'm here to listen."

Dr. Paul is a political perennial, which ordinarily is a political liability -- nobody wants his name linked with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio or former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen. But Dr. Paul is a perennial with a difference.

No longer are he and his views colorful eccentricities. He's not the only one skeptical of the Fed, nor the only one worried about federal spending. His $2 million ad offensive here -- the earliest big TV bang yet -- has a simple theme: the changing views of his rivals and the consistency of his own views.

He hasn't adjusted his message to the current debate. The current debate has been bent to his message.

"I don't know whether things have come my way or not," he said. "A lot of mistakes have been made, and people are paying new attention to all this overspending."

Today, with the economy still in distress and foreign wars causing increasing distress, a Venn diagram of Dr. Paul's ideas would give a viewer a serious case of vertigo.

His position on the Fed intersects that of Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont socialist. His position on spending intersects that of the Tea Party. His position on foreign intervention intersects those of some conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. And he sees allies in Occupy Wall Street.

"The street demonstrations are symbols of our problems," he said. "It's now important that all that energy be channeled in the right way. A lot of those people are skeptical of the Fed. But some of them want to penalize anybody's who's successful. That's not the way to go."

All those intersections explain why he was asked here by a woman who's an officer in the National Guard whether he'd withdraw American troops from Afghanistan (his answer: "Just come home") and by a man who described himself as a carpenter, wilderness guide, teacher, and novelist whether the Fed was "a cabal of international bankers" (Dr. Paul: "We can get rid of it by congressional action").

Listen to the heart of the Paul message:

"The Constitution is to protect individuals' rights to make their own choices," he said. "We have accepted this idea that the government can be so big that it can bankrupt our economy and endanger our liberties. We have to decide what the role of government should be."

Every one of those sentences could be spoken in 2012 by any number of Republican candidates.

Dr. Paul is running for more than president. He is running to make his ideas part of the mainstream debate. He'll likely lose the first campaign. He's already won the second.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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