Little things are different for former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, now that his name no longer hangs outside a Capitol Hill office door. He wears ties less often. He writes his own posts on “the Facebook.” He had time to plant tomatoes at his Texas home last weekend. But his role as a libertarian political hero hasn’t really changed since he retired from Congress in January: the outsider status he spent decades cultivating from within Washington is simply official.
He is still anxious to weigh in on the issues of the day. The sequester “is a farce.” Secretary of State John Kerry is “stirring up more war.” And he maintains his distinctive obsessions. In just the first five minutes of a speech to George Washington University students on Monday, Paul struck his favorite themes: individual liberty, the gold standard, the Federal Reserve, the wealth gap, inflation and the future of the Republican Party. He even declared that “We’re all Austrians now!” (a reference to his economic messiah, Ludwig von Mises). The speech could have been pulled directly from his 2008 or 2012 presidential campaign bids. Except now Paul is working purely to change minds, not win votes.
And that’s a kind of liberation. Speaking to TIME, Paul says that he doesn’t miss the Washington job he had, on and off, for nearly a quarter century. He just carries on with his longtime message of personal and economic freedom. “My focus has always been about the same,” he says. “I just look for different vehicles.” His vehicles used to be hearings and speeches aired on C-SPAN. These days, his vehicles include his non-profit group and lobbying arm Campaign for Liberty; a weekly online column called “Texas Straight Talk;” an upcoming one-minute radio program dubbed “Ron Paul’s America;” a book he’s writing on home-schooling; and, of course, speaking engagements. After GWU, he’s heading to Canada and New York where he will continue to spin what he calls the “broken record.”
Paul’s style may be better suited to life outside of Congress, where he’s even less bound by political practicalities. During a Q&A session after his GWU speech, a young man asked about who would take over America’s roles overseas if all our troops returned. “I think we should just come home,” Paul said. Another student asked whether the federal government should recognize gay marriage. In the past, Paul has supported the federal Defense of Marriage Act but suggested the issue should be left to states to decide. On Monday, he responded by saying, “People should do what they want.” Asked about whether people should abandon electoral politics given the hegemony of the two big parties, Paul quipped, “To each his own.”
On most issues, Paul’s stances—like closing all our foreign military bases and bringing home all the troops—remain well outside of the Republican mainstream. Which is why his new outside game doesn’t feel so different from the inside one. “I was never frustrated in Congress because I never really believed that what I would do or say would reverse” federal policies, he explains. Paul never measured success through chairmanships or named legislation. He measured it in individual converts and any “stamp of approval” on his views, which the obstetrician plans to pursue over the Internet just as he did on the House floor.
Paul does believe that the world, including some conservatives, has finally come around to seeing one thing his way: the war on drugs. “I think we’ve won, and I’ve predicted this for a long time,” he tells TIME, “that some day the country is going to wake up and say ‘this is stupid’ and they’re going to change the drug laws.” The audience at GWU was definitely awake. The thousands packed into Lisner Auditorium burst into applause when Paul decried government efforts to control what people can put into their mouths, be it raw milk or doobies.
Still, Paul is pessimistic about the GOP. Their future is “dismal,” he says, until they start adhering to a more peaceful, more uniform ideology. “What do they believe in?” he says to TIME. “I hear their rhetoric but nobody believes them.” When asked whether his son, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, is setting a decent example within the party, Paul jokes that “Well, he’s the best Senator there is!” Asked whether his son will bear the libertarian torch in Congress now that he’s gone, Paul is noncommittal. “He and a bunch of others all have their role to play,” he says, mentioning Michigan Rep. Justin Amash and Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie. Asked whether he thinks his son might run for President one day, he hedges: “He’s been asked that, and he hasn’t denied it, so I guess that’s his answer.”
At 77, Paul seems to be transitioning from politician to pundit. His radio spot will be produced by the same entertainment group as Bill O’Reilly, and FOX News went to Paul for his reaction after President Obama’s State of the Union address. But he knows that his relevance may be hard to maintain. “Usually you can’t stay the same. Either you have to get a little better or you have to be forgotten,” Paul says of life after Congress. “That doesn’t bother me, because I know that I only have one job. And that is to present my case.”