Ron Paul presidential campaign spokesperson Jesse Benton said there is “no chance” that Paul will endorse the third party Libertarian run of former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. This is hardly surprising, as Paul and his followers have concentrated on systematically taking over the Republican Party from the ground up and pushing for changes to the GOP platform. The political future of his son, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also serves a kind of hostage for Ron Paul, ensuring that he can’t go too far off the reservation.
This does represent a real change. After all, last time around in 2008, Ron Paul held an absurd press conference to encourage his voters to vote for any of four third party candidates, including such champions of liberty as Ralph Nader and famously Leftist former Georgia U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney. Later, Paul would move on and endorse only one candidate – Constitution Party presidential nominee (and vocal fundamentalist Christian minister) Chuck Baldwin. Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr was not amused.
It’s the nature of political movements to compromise and temper their ideological extremes as they advance. With his son a sitting U.S. Senator and his efforts to “Audit the Fed” gaining acceptance inside the Republican Party, the same forces that are allowing Ron Paul to make an impact within the party are also assimilating him. The Paul campaign is now in the unenviable position of trying to control its own uncontrollable supporters. Paul’s plan to take over the party cannot afford a repeat of the Arizona GOP convention, where the son of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Josh Romney was booed off the stage while he pleaded for party unity. Like all revolutionaries who make their peace with the system, Paul now has to accomplish the difficult task of simultaneously reassuring the GOP that he can keep his followers under control, while still maintaining his credibility with the grassroots activists.
His job is complicated by Gary Johnson securing the Libertarian nomination. Johnson was one of the great “what-if’s” of the Republican primary, a successful and popular governor from a swing state that failed to catch on among the Republican base. Johnson advocates can point to a deliberate effort to keep him out of the Republican debates, but there was something more elemental in his failure to catch on. As indicated by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s spirited effort, Republican primary voters were looking for a fighter, someone who could appeal to their own sense of identity politics as victims of liberal elites and a hostile media. Meanwhile, Gary Johnson was talking about legalizing pot, and such libertarian activists that did exist were already committed to Paul.
In contrast to Johnson’s libertarianism, Paul, aka “Dr. No,” comes out of a particular tradition of the American Right that is anti-UN, socially conservative, anti-immigration and linked to the kind of Buchananite populism that marshals the “peasants with pitchforks” against internationalist and anti-American elites. While Paul has reinvented himself to appeal to his youthful base, there is still the occasional grumbling in some libertarian circles about his pro-life and mildly restrictionist immigration positions. Johnson appeals more to cosmopolitan libertarians, emphasizing social tolerance, gay rights and open borders.
The Ron Paul generation is transforming the Republican Party, and the party needs to keep these dedicated activists within the fold if they want to remain competitive. Ultimately, it may come down to Ron Paul himself. Paul can no longer afford frivolous publicity stunts like those of 2008, but his cult following demands that he retain his independent reputation. The most dangerous time for any revolution is the time of transition, and Paul will have to determine whether the liberty movement is part of the Republican coalition or an adversary, on the outside like Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson.
The real question is once Ron Paul makes his choice, will his followers listen?