How the Pauls (Ron and Rand) Are Reshaping Politics

Ron and Rand Paul understand that libertarianism is merging with populism to explosive effect. How a new political dynasty is scrambling American politics

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Jon Lowenstein / NOOR for TIME

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If his followers could be extreme ideologically, they certainly delivered Establishment-grade money, raising more than $20 million in 2008. Yet Paul was never able to translate that enthusiasm and money into votes and wound up with just 14 delegates.

But no sooner had Paul ended his campaign than the very foundations of the world economy grew wobbly. Overnight, Dr. No's prescriptions gained a surprising currency. Paul had long called for the abolition of the U.S.'s central bank, which he accuses of "flooding the economy with easy money" that leads to boom-and-bust cycles. That seemed like a personal fixation, and Paul's perennial attempts, dating from 1983, to open the Federal Reserve's secret books to the sunlight of an audit, went nowhere — that is, until the great financial meltdown of 2008. In a testament to how the world has shifted around Paul, in May the Senate passed a Fed audit provision. Unanimously. When Paul released a book last fall exposing the Fed's practices (End the Fed), it became a best seller. "I don't take credit for being clairvoyant," Paul told TIME with typical humility. Anyone who's been paying attention to Austrian economics would have seen the same things coming, he explains. "This system is not viable."

Paul says he didn't force his views on his five children. "My wife and I raised our kids pretty laissez-faire," he says (fitting for a libertarian), "teaching self-reliance and responsibility and the work ethic." Rand followed his father into the family business in two ways. First, medicine. After attending Baylor University in Texas and, like his dad, Duke medical school, Rand moved to Bowling Green, Ky., with his wife Kelley Ashby and opened an eye-surgery practice. More than his siblings, Rand was also drawn to libertarian economists and writers like Ayn Rand who had shaped his father's worldview. (The coincidence is striking, but Rand, whose full name is Randal, says he was not named after the Atlas Shrugged author.) "He was slightly smaller than his brothers," says the elder Paul. Rand is 5 ft. 6 in. (168 cm). "He was athletic, but he was more challenged because he had to compensate for his size. I think he had to work harder to be competitive, not only with his peers but also his siblings."

Rand waded into politics within a year of moving to Kentucky. He founded Kentucky Taxpayers United, which urged local politicians to sign pledges not to raise taxes. He says that elective office held little appeal for him until the events of the past couple of years. "I ran for office not because I needed a job. It's not that glamorous — it's a lot of miles, a lot of eating McDonald's," Paul told a crowd in Columbia, Ky., in late February. "My fear, my worry, which is the same of the Tea Party movement, is that we could destroy our country with this out-of-control spending." His father's 2008 campaign gave him a useful training ground: Rand would often warm up crowds at his dad's campaign events; he contributed a fiery stem-winder to that December 2007 Boston tea party.

Rand has proven more politically flexible than his father. In Boston, Rand railed against the "imperial presidency" of George W. Bush and denounced the Iraq war; in Kentucky he picked his fights more selectively. He mostly sidestepped foreign policy, instead emphasizing economics, bashing the stimulus plan, bank bailouts and pork-barrel spending. Rand said he is skeptical about the U.S.'s presence in Afghanistan but didn't oppose it. After seeming to dismiss the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and then taking heat for that, he quickly clarified that he supports sanctions against Iran and even the threat of military action. Unlike most libertarians, Rand opposes abortion, gay marriage and decriminalizing drugs. But as the uproar over his comments about the Civil Rights Act demonstrates, his underlying political philosophy has elements that don't translate into mainstream appeal. Eliminate environmental regulations? End all gun control? Abolish the minimum wage? All are standard libertarian beliefs. "It is true that there are certain things that libertarians believe that will seem just shocking and scandalous to most people unless we're given 10 minutes to explain ourselves," explains Tom Woods, a scholar at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute. But that's about nine minutes more than anyone in modern politics gets.

Rand's quick retreat from the topic of government-mandated integration shows that he understands that politics sometimes trumps principle. But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America. It may not be as dogmatic as the strain studied at the von Mises Institute; we're not ready to legalize heroin just yet. But polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention.

The Pauls also understand that libertarianism is merging with populism to explosive effect. Past populist movements summoned government action against the excesses of big business. Today, many Tea Partyers view government and business as working in collusion to rob the average guy — as demonstrated by the huge bank bailout that restored Wall Street bonuses but brought little relief to Main Street. With that comes a sense of outsiderness — an intense distrust of all authority, from Congress to the media to financial institutions, even the medical establishment. This too favors the Pauls, two men with open disdain for the inner sanctums of power and money. "Ideas are the only things that count, and politicians are, for the most part, pretty much irrelevant," Ron Paul told the London Independent in December.

All that, and the rise of the son, makes a repeat White House run by the father more likely, no matter his age. Ron Paul has already scored a big win in the first straw poll of the 2012 season, beating the likes of Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin at a gathering of conservatives in February. "It's way too early" to decide, Paul says. "I have no plans, but I have not ruled it out." And why would he? He has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

With reporting by Alex Altman and Jay Newton-Small / Kentucky

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