Lynne Sladky / AP
Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
By standard measures, Ron Paul’s legislative career in Washington has been unusually unproductive. In 23 years in office, just one of the 613 bills the maverick Texan introduced in Congress was signed into law, a proposal to sell the customs house in Galveston to a local historical association.
Just four measures he authored passed the House of Representatives. Only seven ever emerged from House committees. That’s a futility rate of 99.8 percent.
“Conventional wisdom says I didn’t get much done,” the 77-year-old Texas congressman said in an interview. “I didn’t get much legislation passed.”
But Ron Paul never has been a conventional politician, and his political career defies conventional analysis. The quirky libertarian from Lake Jackson, Texas, may not have been a legislative titan. But the former Air Force medic who entered politics four decades ago to protect Americans’ individual liberties against government encroachment, has managed to become the best-known national political figure in Texas politics today.
Paul, who retired from his 14th District congressional seat this year to focus on his third longshot presidential campaign, has greater name recognition across the country than the state’s two influential Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn. He received millions more votes in his 2012 Republican presidential campaign than his home state’s powerful governor, Rick Perry. He has attracted more campaign contributors than any Texan not named Bush. And he has more Twitter followers than the rest of the Texas congressional delegation. Combined.
Against all odds, through sheer willpower and Web prowess, the soft-spoken obstetrician-gynecologist has altered the nation’s political dialogue on issues ranging from oversight of the Federal Reserve System to America’s military role in the world — and created an Internet-fueled national political movement.
“Ron Paul is a gadfly, a loner and a man of principle,” said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College. “Paul’s appeal is not rooted in mainstream national or Washington politics. Because of that, Paul’s legacy is an unusual one for a retiring U.S. representative. His ability to boost a national libertarian movement that will outlive his career is his biggest accomplishment. The modern libertarian movement had no more consequential advocate than Ron Paul.”
To his most devoted supporters, Paul is a transformational political figure.
“We live in the age of Ron Paul,” libertarian economist Lew Rockwell said.
“Ron Paul has established a beachhead for liberty,” South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis said.
Paul used the Internet to run two low-cost presidential campaigns by using an interlocking collection of libertarian-minded websites, think tanks, blogs and social media. He created the “money bomb,” an Internet phenomenon that helped him raise millions of dollars in short periods of time through small contributions. Other Republicans tried to replicate the tactic with limited success.
His own party leaders, including fellow Texans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, denied him a coveted committee chairmanship. He responded by taking his fight to college campuses and community events far from Washington. His career absentee rate was 12.5 percent — about five times the Capitol Hill average.
“As a legislator, he was not consequential,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said. “I do believe he was principled and he was certainly consistent. But politics is not about batting 100 percent on your own scorecard. It’s about making a difference, about achieving policy changes, helping people. By that standard, he cast a very small shadow.”
His maverick ways occasionally had consequences. This year, for example, Republican leaders in Austin carved up Paul’s old congressional district into three pieces during the redistricting process, giving him the choice of running against two Republican incumbents or facing a majority of new voters in a district that was far more urban. As Paul recalls it, GOP legislators in Austin asked him how he would like his district to be changed in redistricting.
“So they did exactly the opposite,” he said.
That “terrible business,” as Paul calls redistricting, is part of the price Paul paid for his occasional apostasies — even though he cast about 90 percent of his votes with his party’s leadership. Despite the costs in lost committee chairmanships and legislative setbacks, Paul doesn’t apologize for shunning go-along, get-along politics.
“Tweaking a bill?” he asked rhetorically. “I never got much of a charge out of that, and that’s how Washington works.”
As he prepares to depart from Washington after three separate stints in Congress over the past 36 years, Paul is gloomy about the state of liberty in America.
“Leaving Washington, it’s in a lot worse shape than when I first came there,” he said, thinking back to his first special election victory in 1976. “Everything’s worse. Our liberties are less. We are in endless wars. The economy is in shambles. And the government is dysfunctional.”
Still, the Pennsylvania native sees hope for the nation in the tens of thousands of young people who have embraced his message of liberty and are slowly infiltrating the American political system.
“Outside of Washington, I am very optimistic,” he said.
After leaving office, Paul says he will divide his time between his home in Texas and his Campaign for Liberty, based in Alexandria, Va. He says he will continue “stirring up the grass roots” and will spend more time doing something he loves — “going to as many college campuses as possible.”
Conventional wisdom in Washington posits that the Texas congressman’s son, Rand, now a freshman senator from Kentucky, will assume his mantle as leader of the national libertarian movement.
“He’s doing a great job,” Ron Paul said of his 49-year-old son.
Ron Paul says he’s not ready to vanish from the political scene, and he’s definitely not ready to speculate about whether another Paul will seek the presidency.
His response: “Who knows?”