In 2007, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, ran for the Republican presidential nomination and spread a message of severely limiting the size and scope of the federal government, exercising military restraint abroad, and being sharply critical of both the Democratic and Republican parties for allowing the U.S. debt to soar so high.
Although he attracted legions of devoted libertarian-minded followers, raised a remarkable $28 million in campaign donations, and reached double digits in many caucuses and primaries (including 11 percent in Kansas, more than Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani combined), his campaign was often ignored and sometimes derided by much of the media and most "traditional" Republicans.
Boy, what a difference four years can make. As Paul recently said to 200 Iowans at a campaign appearance, "Some used to laugh at me when I brought up the issues of the Federal Reserve, the debt and the immorality of funding an expanding government. That's stopped. . . . Four years ago I kept saying we were in big trouble, and now there are a lot of true believers."
With some cause, Paul now calls himself the "grandfather of the tea party."
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Judging by the size and fervor of the crowds he is attracting in Iowa, Paul is getting a strong look-see by voters. He jokes: "Our campaign is doing quite well. That usually means the country is not doing well."
Indeed, much of what he has been saying for years on the debt and expanding government are now accepted as fact by not only many Republicans, but also the other candidates in the GOP field. So in 2011, Paul does not stand out from the rest of the field by his economic views, but he still does on foreign policy.
Simply put, Paul thinks that American foreign policy and the massive spending needed to support it (nearly $1 trillion a year) is nuts.
He argues with great passion that the debate over cutting Social Security and other entitlement programs should occur, but there's more of a moral and political imperative to examine foreign policy first.
"We, as Republicans and especially as conservatives, shouldn't be out there saying, 'Well, we can balance the budget by cutting out child health care,'" Paul said. "That makes no sense whatsoever from a political standpoint. It's much easier to cut some of this spending overseas."
Paul added: "I've come to the very strong conclusion that being everywhere on the face of the Earth and being involved in so much violence doesn't help us one bit. I think that some of those problems are unsolvable."
Paul's foreign-policy views pit him once again against most of his presidential opponents, who chafe at the idea of defense budget cuts or rapid troop withdrawals. So in Council Bluffs, Iowa, I recently asked him how he answers the argument that if America dramatically withdraws from the world, we'll be attacked down the road by our enemies. Paul answered that one of the main reasons for the intensity of hatred of the U.S. in many Islamic countries is that we're over there meddling in their affairs.
"They're angry for the same reason that we'd be angry if they were on our land," he said, noting "we're dropping bombs now in five different countries."
So as Paul campaigns in Iowa and beyond, his greatest challenge is no longer to convince Republicans that the role of the Federal Reserve needs to be dramatically curtailed, but that the U.S. role in the world needs to be as well.