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Ron Paul Helped Inspire the Tea Party Movement, and Now It Could Take Him Down

Facing three GOP opponents affiliated with the Tea Party movement in the primaries, Paul is concerned that building anti-Washington sentiment could take him out as well.
 
 
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Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas' Gulf Coast, faces three Republican challengers this year -- more than in his six past primaries combined. All three opponents are affiliated with the Tea Party movement. What makes this so fascinating is the fact that the Tea Partiers got their unofficial start through Paul himself.

Sarah Palin may be the face of the Tea Party movement today, but it started with Ron Paul in 2007. That December, on the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, Paul's presidential campaign supporters participated in a "money bomb," a one-day online fundraising blitz that raked in $6 million from 40,000 people nationwide, and drew upon the 1773 protest's anti-tax sentiments.

Officially a Republican, Ron Paul was denied a speaking slot at the GOP convention in St. Paul, so he held his own well-attended event across town. While Paul only tallied 41,905 votes on Election Day, his fundraising prowess and widespread appeal among disaffected fiscal conservatives who have grown uncomfortable with the Republican Party's easy reliance on corporate money and gay-bashing base, made political observers across the spectrum take note of the scrappy outsider.

In 2009, right-wingers saw the glimmers of a populist movement in the anger directed at President Obama's stimulus spending and identified it as a chance to unify a strong opposition movement that could bite into Democrats' majorities in both houses of Congress by 2010. One group was inspired by Paul's Boston Tea Party metaphor and started organizing Tea Party protests throughout the country, opposing -- as Paul does -- big government and a "runaway" federal budget.

Yet today's Tea Party movement bears only a handful of similarities to the so-called Ron Paul Revolution. Both are anti-tax and anti-spending and they have issues with the Federal Reserve. But Ron Paul libertarians, on the whole, are also focused on ending the post-9/11 wars, are proponents of government accountability and transparency, and often are closer to progressives on civil liberties -- especially regarding the war on drugs -- than they are to the average right-winger.

Just this week, Paul was a guest on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, where he spoke about the Tea Party crowd. While both he and they are bolstered by anger at our current modes of government, Paul said the Tea Partiers only sometimes represent his own views, and suggested that their "message gets a little bit diluted when a lot of people come in." In particular, Paul said, the Republican Party has tried to insert a "neocon type of influence" into the movement.

In fact, many Tea Party adherents -- like neoconversatives -- are pro-war and pro-Homeland Security, whereas Paul has built a reputation on opposing the second Bush administration on everything from the PATRIOT Act to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given the few similarities and far greater differences, where does Ron Paul fit in within the growing Tea Party landscape he inadvertently paved the way for?

Interestingly, his son Rand Paul, who is running for a Senate seat in Kentucky, has received the backing of both Sarah Palin and the official Tea Party leadership, a fact the campaign has extensively touted. Rand Paul is running to "fight for liberty and limited government and put an end to the current climate of insider politics, runaway deficits and out-of-control growth of government" -- a message that sounds exactly like his father's has for years.

Rand Paul is currently a favorite in Kentucky, holding a double-digit lead in the Republican primary and polling ahead of either Democratic opponent. Like his father, he's showcased fundraising prowess -- his campaign has $1.8 million in the bank.

So why are Tea Partiers behind the son and not the father? After all, their views are nearly identical. The answer may simply be that Rand Paul is a new face on the political landscape, whereas Ron Paul -- although on the definite fringe of the GOP -- is nevertheless an incumbent. That anti-incumbent sentiment, added to the Tea Party's set goal of working like a real political party to influence elections, has probably moved Paul's three challengers to start their campaigns.

One of Paul's Tea Party opponents, John Gay, a school business administrator, told the Dallas Morning News: "The word I keep hearing is 'ineffective.' This district is not really being represented as it could be."

Perhaps one way in which Paul may be seen as ineffective by his constituents and opponents is the fact that he votes no on essentially any spending measure, and he is consistent, potentially to a fault. He even went as far as voting against federal disaster recovery aid for his own district after Hurricane Ike in 2008.

But as Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent writes, "Almost nothing that Paul does cuts against the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement that is mentioned most in the press....some of it does cut against the priorities of national security conservatives and partisan Republicans."

Indeed, it seems as though the Tea Party has recognized the growing appeal of libertarian ideals among right-wing voters, and has co-opted that rhetoric to diffuse its own far more right-wing message. While it may tout libertarian-style beliefs as its rousing cause, the actual unifying theme seems to be anti-Obama, with some anti-immigrant sprinkled in along with the parodoxical meld of anti-unionism and anti-big business.

Due to this convoluted platform, the Tea Party continues to be a much more fringe group than the Ron Paul Revolution. Further aiding Paul are not only the advantages of longtime incumbency, but his sustained ability to raise cash. He has more than $1.9 million at the ready, while his opponents don't have more than a few thousand dollars each, according to the Morning News. And because Ron Paul is Ron Paul -- and not Dede Scozzafava -- it's unlikely he'd face a Bill Owens-style ousting such as the one bolstered by Palin and the Tea Party in upstate New York last November, which ultimately helped a Democrat win a historically Republican seat.

Even so, because Ron Paul knows a lot about the machinations -- and power -- behind populist movements, he told supporters in an email last month that he'd have to work hard to ensure that the anti-Washington sentiment, which he calls "a good thing," does not take him out as well.

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor of the Progressive Wire and Investigations at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.