I wondered about Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty. It had begun to offer regional conferences, and the second one, in late May, was in a suburb of my hometown, Seattle. A free event was scheduled with Congressman Paul on a Friday evening and a conference on political organizing all day Saturday.
At the Friday event, Paul gave a speech on liberty, sound money, and the Constitution, to a crowd of 700 supporters. At the conference next day, there were 210 attendees, mostly white, aged 20 to 70, mostly from Washington and Oregon but some from Montana, where Paul won 24% of the vote in the 2008 primary. In the Seattle crowd were more women than one would usually see in a crowd of libertarians, and even a few school-age kids: homeschoolers. Like Paul, most people in the audience were pro-life, judging from some of the applause. The favored issue on buttons was the Federal Reserve: the middle-aged woman next to me, a Republican precinct committee officer munching on sliced apples, wore a button that said “END the FED.” Paul has a bill in Congress to audit the Fed.
Tom Woods of the Ludwig von Mises Institute did the opening. It was history from 1798 to 1812 about the states defying the federal government over the Alien and Sedition Acts and President Jefferson’s ban on foreign commerce. Woods was presenting the issue of state nullification of federal laws – not to benefit slavery, as it is usually presented, but to benefit freedom of trade and freedom of political speech. And for the benefit of the Constitution itself.
Here was history few had heard. In it was a message: it is all right for a state to make its own decisions about what is constitutional, and to defy the federal government. A county or a city could do this. Resistance was part of the American tradition. And the audience was ready.
Now comes the main speaker, Michael Rothfeld. He is a “liberty-loving conservative, pro-gun and pro-life,” from Falmouth, Virginia, and has a direct-mail and political consultancy called SABER Communications. He is wiry, intense, nervous, and one of the only men in the hall wearing a suit. From behind he looks like Barack Obama. He speaks in short sentences and expertly works the crowd. Right at the beginning he asks the audience: “What will be the legacy of Ron Paul?” Pause. Then he says: “A return to sound money?”
“Yes,” a few voices reply. ”
An end to big government?”
“Yes!” more say. ”
A return to the Constitution?”
“YES!” the crowd roars.
“No!” he bellows.
“That is not the legacy of Ron Paul.”
“You are the legacy of Ron Paul.”
Several hours later he asks us if we think we are normal Americans. No one answers.
“You are not normal,” he declares. “Normal people do not sit here on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and listen to someone like me.” The audience applauds.
Rothfeld’s first lecture starts with a warning of blunt truths ahead. Here is the first. The American political system is fine. Forget about its being “broken.” It’s not. “It works exactly as it’s designed to work,” he says. The point of activism is to make it work for you. “I am going to tell you how to seek and use power,” he says.
All those schoolmarm maxims about compromise and working together and being patient – when you hear that kind of stuff, Rothfeld says, always ask yourself: “How does the political class benefit if I believe this?” He returns to this line many times during the day. If you accept the politician’s offer of “access,” he says, it benefits the politician, not you. You were trying to influence him. And then you stopped, and let him influence you.
“Don’t,” Rothfeld says.
As an activist, your central work is not to educate the public. It is to mobilize that part of the public that already agrees with you. Let them educate. You mobilize.
That your group is a minority is all right. If you do not vote you do not count, and in America only a minority votes. Often the outcome is determined by only a handful, a minority of the minority.
The implication: if you can mobilize 1% of the people and put their votes in play, you can have power.
“This is not an argument for third parties,” he says. Third party votes are not available for a winning coalition and therefore are not in play. Nor is it an argument to be a loyal
“Communications is not about you!” Rothfeld shouts. lilt is not about what you think. Nobody cares what you think.”
Democrat or Republican, because then your votes are also not in play, and you will be ignored. “This is what the evangelicals have become in the Republican Party,” Rothfeld says. “They are captives on the plantation.”
To have influence, you have to be willing to bring pain and ridicule on those who cross you, especially on your supposed friends. You have to be feared. “If you are not politically feared you will not be respected,” he says. You have to prove to the political establishment four things: “First, that you are serious; second, that you are backed up by numbers; third, that you will inflict pain during election season; and fourth, that you will be back next year.”
Don’t shy away from the negative. “Pain is a stronger motivator than pleasure,” he says. “I’ve never regretted being negative in a campaign. I have deeply regretted remaining positive, which was usually because the candidate didn’t want to go negative.”
Most times you will not win. The more ideological you are, the less likely you will succeed. But winning is not all that matters. “You think winning is all that matters?” Rothfeld says. “I guess Ron Paul shouldn’t have run, huh?”
We are all there because Paul ran for president.
“Money and volunteers come out of losing campaigns even more sometimes than winning campaigns,” Rothfeld says, recalling Barry Goldwater’s long-term investment of 1964.
Political movements are built when out of power. “When George W. Bush was president, we could never mobilize against big-government programs,” says Rothfeld. “Now we can.” Now Republican legislators can be pressured into actually doing something good.
Then he delivers a lecture on communications. “Communications is not about you!” Rothfeld shouts. “It is not about what you think. Nobody cares what you think. It is about them.” Listen to what other people care about. Speak to that. If you’re in a battle over a single issue – and those are mostly the battles you should be fighting – find people who agree with you on that issue. If you are campaigning against a tax increase, don’t start talking to them about guns or the Fed or ending the War on Drugs. You are not recruiting one precious mind at a time. You are trying to block a tax increase with a phalanx of “No” voters.
The subject of communications morphs into the ways of money raising. Rothfeld is a junk-mail operator, proud of it, and tells some of the secrets of that tribe. Everything in the piece of mail – the type of paper, the type of postage, whether there is a return address, etc. – is calculated to move a person who does not want to give.
Most junk letters will be thrown away. Junk mailers know that; but if 2% give, that’s okay. Three percent is good, 4% is very good and 5% is fabulous.
Do you think fundraising letters are too long? You are wrong, and it is not a matter of opinion. It is a fact, verifiable in dollars and cents. Long letters work better than short ones. Some people read the whole thing; some look only at the bullet points and italics – that’s why they’re there, to catch the eye – and some skip right to the end. The junk mailers know this.
“All direct mail contains a P.5.,” he says. It isn’t because the writer had a belated thought. “It’s because repetition is the key to learning…. And also because we know a lot of people didn’t read the letter.”
A candidate raises money by asking for it over the phone. Rothfeld has advice about that, too. List everyone you know. Everyone. Don’t mind their politics. If they give, it is because you are asking them. Put down a figure you think they can afford, then call them and ask them for twice as much. “Then shut up,” he says. “Whoever speaks next, loses.”
If they say no, ask for half as much – and be silent.
If they say no again, he says, “Ask, ‘How much can I count on from you right now?’ ” Then shut up again.
Rothfeld raised $70,000 this way for a campaign he lost. “I hated it every single time,” he says. But a candidate has to do it; if he does not do it, he’s not serious.
Later in the day comes a lecture on working the legislature.·You need a legislator to carry your ball, he says. Don’t have a member of leadership, or one hankering for such a post, because “you get to be in leadership by cutting deals.” You don’t want a wheeler-dealer to sell you out. You want someone who is committed. Someone who is tough. If that person sells you out, lash back. “You’ve got to punish your so-called ‘people’ if they did wrong.”
If you are a legislator, beware of whom you ally with. “Don’t have cross-ideological coalitions,” Rothfeld says. “Don’t have a press conference with ’em. Don’t explain your private tactics to ’em. They won’t be sharing their private tactics with you. You can have an informal coalition, but keep it private, and you won’t be saddled with their negatives.”
Hearing this, I recalled Ron Paul’s press conference in 2008 with Ralph Nader and the Green and Constitution Party candidates. I wondered what Paul would have said in reply. But he was not there. He had flown out.
John Tate, president of the Campaign for Liberty, was there. He was the national political director for the Ron Paul Campaign Committee and for many years before that was vice president of the National Right to Work Committee. To the Left, right-to-work is the lipstick mark of the corporations. But when Tate is talking to a long-haired guy who says he does not believe in corporate personhood, Tate says flatly that none of the Fortune 500 companies funded Right to Work. It was not a corporate effort – and in the Campaign for Liberty there is no mention of such businessy causes as tort reform or abolishing the double taxation of dividends.
This is a populist movement.
Tate said that the Campaign for Liberty had exceeded 150,000 members. “The number of requests Ron Paul has from Republican Party groups now is three or four times more than during the height of the campaign,” he said.
Three political parties were listed as sponsors of the Seattle conference and had adjacent booths in the hall: the Constitution Party, the Libertarian Party, and the local branch of the Republican Party. Which of these parties is the Campaign for Liberty trying to boost?
“We are completely nonpartisan,” Tate told me. (The woman at the Libertarian booth said, “Most of the people here are Republicans.”)
Is the Campaign for Liberty preparing the ground for Paul to run in 2012?
“This, to my knowledge, does not have anything to do with a potential Ron Paul run in 2012,” Tate said. “I have heard nothing about anything like that.” Because of the organization’s legal status, he said, if the congressman runs, “we would have to completely distance ourselves from Ron Paul.”
“This is political training,” he said.
So it was. The next training session is scheduled for July, in Las Vegas.
Though I’m not in politics directly, I am close enough to it to recognize such an event as useful training, a kind of boot camp lecture from a political drill sergeant. What people will do with it is the question. Many state and local actions are possible. There remains a thought that Paul, who will be 77 in 2012, could run again despite his age, and that the platoons trained in 2009 would by then be ready for the rough and tumble.