Here’s a news bulletin — it is becoming increasingly clear that we are living in a time when Republican politics are being shaped by a 75-year-old, 12-term Texas congressman with a son in the Senate. And incredibly, it is no longer out of the realm of possibility that this outcast of the GOP establishment may win the party’s presidential nomination.
If you have not been paying attention, it is time to look around and realize that we are living in the political age of Rep. Ron Paul.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll released late last week shows Paul faring the best against President Obama of any potential Republican candidate. He trails the president by only 7 points, 52-45 percent, in a head-to-head matchup. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trails by 8 points, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney down 11 points to Obama.
In February, Paul won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Action Conference for the second straight year. Last Thursday, the day of the first GOP debate, one of Paul’s fabulously-labeled “money bombs” exploded with the announcement of $1 million in contributions for the Paul campaign.
The Tea Party, which drove the GOP to claim a majority of the House in the mid-term elections, grew largely out of the ashes of his 2008 presidential campaign, which emphasized limited government and a return to constitutional principles.
Since then, the Tea Party has bullied the Republican leadership in the House to force budget cuts at the risk of shutting down the government and collectively become the most persistent critic of the Obama presidency on financial regulatory reform and health care.
The roots of all of this are in the libertarian mind of Congressman Paul.
At last week’s debate, hosted by my primary employer, Fox News Channel, I was struck by the libertarian flair the iconoclast injected into the evening. First, his presence along with another libertarian Republican — former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson — allowed for Republicans nationwide to witness a debate in which strong arguments for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan came from the right. But that was just the start. There are instances where Paul’s views make the Republican establishment want to scream.
For example, I asked him about his stated concern that Israel will launch a unilateral military strike against Iran. He replied that Israel had become too dependent on U.S. military and foreign aid and that it should be responsible for its own security and sovereignty. In the past he has blasted the “neoconservatives” and their influence on U.S. foreign policy.
He has been adamantly opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning and has called for an immediate pullout of all U.S. troops. He rails against the American “empire” and argues that U.S. spending on a global military presence should be cut.
Paul’s thinking is also having an impact on conservative views about domestic policy.
Even when he called for legalization of marijuana, cocaine and heroin at the debate it did not elicit hooting but cheers from South Carolina’s famously right-wing Republicans.
Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, was elected as a senator from Kentucky in 2010 with 55 percent of the vote. Paul is a chip off the old block — espousing many of the same libertarian views as his father. Because of this, he has become one of the most distinctive newcomers in the United States Senate.
It was almost exactly four years ago when Ron Paul sparred with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in a 2008 Republican presidential primary debate. Paul said about the role of U.S. policy in bringing about the 9/11 attacks: “They attack us because we’ve been over there, we’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We’ve been in the Middle East. I think Reagan was right. We don’t understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics.”
Giuliani shot back: “That’s an extraordinary statement of someone who lived through the attack of Sept. 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.”
Who could have guessed that, four years later, Giuliani would be off the stage while the persistent Paul is growing, exhibiting more and more power in Republican politics, shaping the GOP debates and in the absence of any strong establishment candidate, looking like a strong contender for the party’s 2012 nomination?
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel. This column originally appeared on The Hill.com.