In 2007, when he was staffing up a no-hope presidential bid, Ron Paul hired a spokesman named Jesse Benton. He was a roving libertarian-Republican spokesman holding down various jobs in D.C. -- I first met him when he worked for the American Meat Institute -- and the Paul job looked, at first, like a lateral move. Libertarians were glad to see Paul run, in the way anti-war activists were happy to see Dennis Kucinich run for the Democratic nomination. It was more intense, because Paul had earned a following over 20 years, but it was realistic.
Nobody predicted the Ron Paul phenomenon. Benton, all of a sudden, was flacking for a political celebrity hounded for autographs and tagged by questions about his old career and associations. He filled the role with aplomb, making himself quickly accessible to reporters (even if his voicemail filled up quickly), serving as a surrogate for a candidate who didn't have time for the gotcha press. When the 2008 campaign wound down, Benton was engaged to Paul's granddaughter Valori Pyeatt and helping promote Paul's first #1 New York Times bestseller. He was helping Paul carve out a new wing in the Republican Party.
“I got to play with some big boys on the insider conservative movement," he told an interviewer in 2008, "and got to see how that works, and how, unfortunately, a lot of the Beltway conservatives don’t practice what they preach."
Benton stuck with Paul, taking a new PR role in the candidate's grassroots group, the Campaign for Liberty. In May 2010, Rand Paul won his primary for U.S. Senate with the help of C4L volunteers. (Well, the help of a lot of people. He won by a landslide over Mitch McConnell's preferred candidate.) The next day he sat for a disastrous interview with Rachel Maddow. Within a week, the Rand Paul campaign announced a new campaign manager: Jesse Benton. At the time, if you read through the vast archives of Ron Paul support sites, you noticed that the grassroots blamed Benton for every bad decision the 2008 campaign had made. But Benton pledged to help Rand Paul "focus on Kentucky," and he did, limiting his exposure to national media, powering out a win against a strong Democratic candidate.
That quieted down the grassroots when Benton re-joined Paul Sr as a spokesman for his 2012 campaign. The world had changed. Paul started out with the strongest volunteer base in the GOP field, and polled well in early states. Benton and Gary Howard, a spokesman who'd worked for the C4L and for Rand Paul, were the public faces of a wedge strategy. Paul would go fairly easy on Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee whom he got along with quite well. He would use his money and debate time to take down all the other non-Romneys. Perry. Gingrich. Santorum. After the Las Vegas debate in 2011, when Perry was already tumbling, I noticed that Paul had gone fairly easy on the governor of Texas, and asked Benton about it. "Why punch down?" he said.
Paul wasn't much into retail campaigning, but he had money and free media -- especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he polled in the 20s. Benton controlled that media. Twice, when CNN reporters got interviews with Paul and tried to ask him troublesome questions, Benton let Paul walk out. He blew off Gloria Borger when (late in her Q&A) she asked about Paul's old newsletters. Later, he blew off Dana Bash and chided her for "junky questions" when she asked Paul why he hadn't stuck around a diner to talk to a fan.
By and large, the Paul movement liked this. But it was frustrating to watch their candidate run and lose again. A lot of blame was thrown at Benton. He tried to play along with the establishment -- with Mitt Romney! -- and got what for it? What was the long game?
Benton's going to find out. He's signed up as the spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell's 2014 re-election campaign. If Benton's successful, he'll help the GOP's leader to a sixth term, just as Sen. Rand Paul will start being approached about a 2016 presidential bid. (When the younger Paul spoke at the Republican National Convention last month, the Paulian-heavy Minnesota delegation chanted "PAUL 16.") The McConnell-Paul drama had been one of the beltway media's favorite sidebar stories. But McConnell and Ron Paul have quite a bit in common. Both of them like to control their media coverage. Both of them are proud absolutists on pet issues -- McConnell on campaign finance, Paul on monetary policy.
But Paul's fans are still trying to process this. "You need non-libertarian politicians to start taking libertarians seriously, and that's great," says Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine who's written a biography of Paul and his movement.* "Of course, to many Benton's move just proves what they suspected: he was never a hardcore Paulite, just a political job seeking wannabe. From my perspective, running Ron Paul's campaign could never have been a sinister and smart way to guarantee a future in the GOP; it's hard to believe one could link oneself to someone as radical in GOP terms as Paul without having an actual desire to move those ideas forward."
That's one take. The other was given at great length by Tom Woods. He's a constitutional and historical and monetary policy scribe who's been to Paul's literary career what Benton's been to his political career -- a helpful factotum who does what Paul can't. In a blog post, Woods recounts tense moments with Benton, blaming him for a schism that turned Woods from a popular figure on the 2008 Paul campaign to an isolated figure in a pro-Paul Super PAC. "I kept the real story a secret for Ron’s sake," he writes. No longer.
"Bentonism is the playing down of Ron Paul’s most popular and important ideas," writes Woods, "the impatience with and purging of people who champion those ideas, and an obsessive eye to GOP respectability. Is that what the 'liberty movement' is? Then count me out."
The prodigal Paulian is shrugging this off.
"I have a lot of respect for Tom," says Benton. "He's a brilliant academician."
*I'm a contributing editor to Reason.