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The growing clout of Ron Paul

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Meredith Simons
Houston Chronicle
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ron Paul is a white-haired, soft-voiced, 74-year-old doctor who has twice failed in presidential campaigns and is frequently derided by his Republican colleagues as an ideologue from the party's libertarian fringe.

No one would have been surprised if the Lake Jackson congressman had slipped off the political radar after his 2008 quixotic bid for the presidency, his ambitions for higher office thwarted.

But Paul has refused to go out to the political pasture to live in comfortable irrelevance. As odd as it may seem, he has become one of the most influential Republicans in a capital city dominated by liberal Democrats.

The subject that has brought him to prominence is the same issue that subjected him to ridicule from establishment Republicans for years: his long-standing opposition to the nation's monetary system and the Federal Reserve Board that prints money and controls its supply.

"On economic matters, he was seen as a way outside the mainstream," University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. "His views were somewhat 19th century in the view of a lot of economists."

Well, they say history repeats itself, and suddenly Paul's "19th-century" thinking seems appealing to those suffering through the first economic meltdown of the 21st century.

Paul's proposal to audit the Federal Reserve -- first introduced by the Texas congressman more than 20 years ago -- recently sailed through the House Financial Services Committee.

His bill has an astonishing 317 co-sponsors in the House, three-quarters of the chamber's members.

In the Senate, where Paul asked Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist, to introduce a similar bill, the measure already has 30 co-sponsors.

And while he was once ignored by his political antagonists at the Federal Reserve, Paul is now engaged in a very public policy debate with Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, who has criticized the Texan's legislation in speeches, interviews, and an op-ed last month in the Washington Post. Asked about Paul's proposal, the chairman declared it would be "bad for markets, bad for the Fed's credibility, bad for inflation expectations, and bad for the dollar."

But not bad for Paul. The lawmaker has been booked solid with media interviews and college speeches; indeed, the Don Quixote of congressional Republicans has had more success in 2009 than any time in his three-decade legislative career.

"I never had so many calls as I had last week," Paul said.

It's a sweet moment for someone who has long been on the margins of Washington politics. Paul attracted his share of attention during his presidential campaign, but even then, he was painted as a fringe candidate zealously supported by libertarian ideologues.

In the House, Paul was ignored by Democrats and marginalized by Republicans. He was punished for the very views that earn him so much adulation today.

According to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in 2003, when Paul was set to assume the chairmanship of the Financial Services subcommittee, Republican higher-ups eliminated the panel because they didn't want Paul in charge.

"He told me, 'I won't get anywhere until you become the chairman,' " Frank said.

Paul may have been kidding at the time, but his words were prophetic.

With the Democrats in control and Frank as chairman, the committee voted 43-26 in favor of Paul's amendment to give Congress more power latitude in auditing the Fed.

"I'm very proud to have been involved in bringing his amendment to a vote," said Frank, who still voted against it.

In Texas, analysts see Paul's renaissance as a reflection of the changing political landscape of America.

"Ron Paul's got a hell of a lot more political support now than just fringe nuts," Murray said. "It's gone mainstream now."

But it's not that Paul has gone mainstream. Rather, the mainstream has gone Paul-ite, with popular anger at Wall Street and the Federal Reserve crystallizing into support for policies Paul has long advocated.

"What happened was the Fed got itself in trouble and he's the one who was there to take advantage of it," Frank said.

Paul says concerns about American monetary policy -- specifically President Richard Nixon taking the country off the gold standard in 1971 -- drove him into politics, and he's spent most of his career wondering whether people would ever care. The answer, suddenly, is yes, something the congressman admits "seems strange after all these years."

He's also noticed that his colleagues are treating him differently too.

"It was like, there he goes on his way, nice guy, but he's not in the ballgame," Paul said. "But today, I think they're paying a little more attention."

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