At the time, few people had ever heard of Ron Paul. He was an asterisk at best.
The man of the moment back then was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the presidential frontrunner whose national popularity had exploded post-911, and who was also Republican hawks’ favored candidate to continue the “war on terror” narrative that defined the Bush-Cheney era GOP.
That night, Paul challenged that narrative.
Paul argued that constant U.S. intervention in the Middle East had created more terrorists than it killed, and emboldened extremists like those who carried out 9/11.
Giuliani replied to Paul, “Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attacks, sir?”
Paul had not said that. The congressman had simply described how U.S. foreign policy actions can have unintended negative consequences, or what the CIA calls “blowback,” a term Paul also mentioned.
Giuliani dug at Paul, “That’s an extraordinary statement, as somebody who lived through the attack of Sept. 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before, and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11,” Giuliani said.
The audience erupted in applause. Giuliani demanded Paul apologize, “I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us he didn’t really mean that.”
Paul didn’t flinch. He continued to explain to a wholly resistant audience how American foreign policy had made the country less safe, enraging his party but also, as would be discovered later, intriguing and inspiring many.
It was a watershed moment.
The American Conservative’s Jim Antle observed in his 2012 essay “Who Killed Rudy Giuliani?,” “The optics were poor: a little-known congressman was standing against the GOP frontrunner on an issue where 90 percent of the party likely disagreed with him. Predictably, there came calls from prominent Republicans over the next few days to exclude Paul from future debates and even throw him out of the party.”
“But then something surprising happened: the encounter helped galvanize a movement behind Paul while Giuliani’s campaign died a slow, painful death,” Antle wrote.
Ron Paul ended up beating Giuliani in almost every 2008 primary and caucus, and the congressman ended his presidential campaign with more than one million votes. Paul would double that number to two million when he ran for president again in 2012. Giuliani received less than 600,000 votes in 2008, dropped out after the Florida primary and did not run in 2012.
It is not hard to make the case that the only significant thing the 2008 Republican primaries produced was Ron Paul’s enduring political imprint.
Born from Paul’s presidential runs was a not-so-small army of activists, organizations, politicians and fellow travelers who branded themselves the “liberty movement.” There had always been a libertarian movement in the U.S., but this new and less marginal force would now flex political muscle and its adherents would continue to help popularize the philosophy more than ever (Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” sold more copies in the years Ron Paul ran for president than it ever had before in its nearly six decade run).
Today, instead of just Ron Paul against the world, there is a libertarian faction within the Republican Party led by Paul’s own son, Senator Rand Paul. The increasingly influential House Freedom Caucus features the most libertarian Republicans in Congress. Young Americans for Liberty—formerly Students for Ron Paul—today is the largest center-right youth activist organization in the country, dwarfing College Republicans.
Most importantly, debates over core liberty issues like limited government (particularly the effort to audit the Federal Reserve), civil liberties, criminal justice reform—and yes, foreign policy—have widened significantly to include the libertarian perspective at a mainstream level, particularly within the Republican Party.
Including, ironically, at the top of the Republican Party.
Throughout 2016, Donald Trump blasted the Iraq War and President George W. Bush more angrily than anything Ron Paul ever exhibited; including saying U.S. foreign policy was directly responsible for creating ISIS.
Was Trump, too, blaming America for radical Islamic terrorism? Rudy Giuliani never asked his friend Donald for an apology. Instead Rudy endorsed him.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s foreign policy has not matched his rhetoric, but the mere fact that he was elected exposing the same flaws of America’s way of war that Ron Paul once tried to get Republicans to see does show how much our politics has shifted in the last decade.
Rudy Giuliani unknowingly helped create an important moment ten years ago.
But Ron Paul sparked a movement.
Disclosure: I co-authored Senator Rand Paul’s 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington and worked for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.