04.26.11

A Better Ron Paul

As cult favorite Ron Paul announces his presidential ambitions today, conservatives are ignoring another libertarian who can actually win. John Avlon on the GOP's secret weapon.

As cult favorite Ron Paul announces his presidential ambitions today, conservatives are ignoring another libertarian who can actually win. John Avlon on the right's secret weapon.

It looks like Ron Paul is running for president again—and libertarians everywhere have reason to cheer.

After the big government conservatism of the George W. Bush era, their ideas seem finally ascendant—and now they have two standard-bearers competing for the Republican nomination in 2012. While the Paul family—recently dubbed "the libertarian Kennedys" by Politico—suck up the media oxygen, there is a comparatively little known but more electorally accomplished libertarian running for president—former two-term New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.

It’s a political high-water mark for a movement that is simultaneously watching the new film version of its ubertext, Atlas Shrugged, tank at the box office. After all, Tea Party rallies were infused with crowd-pleasing libertarian rhetoric. Paul Ryan’s budget plan—with its proposed transformation of Medicare and Medicaid to a voucher-program—represents a long-time fantasy of libertarians about rolling back the welfare state. And while President Bush campaigned on a federal marriage amendment in 2004, polls show that young conservatives have decidedly inclusive attitudes toward gays and lesbians, even when it comes to the freedom to marry.

It’s a measure of the fact that a formerly obscure Texas congressman, Ron Paul, has emerged as the most intellectually influential figure in the Republican Party. A lonely voice of philosophic consistency during the Bush years, Ron Paul’s edge—particularly among conservative youth—came from the fact that he was George W. Bush’s ideological opposite in almost all things, despite their common Texas roots.

Paul is a neo-isolationist with disdain for the neo-conservative agenda—famously even saying that U.S. interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East helped bring about 9/11—essentially echoing an al Qaeda rationalization. The 9/11 Truthers—the Birthers of the Bush presidency—hovered around his candidacy without receiving the direct endorsement of their candidate. More relevant to today’s debates, Paul was an admirably consistent critic of the pork-barrel spending that came out of the Tom DeLay-led GOP congress during the Bush years—a pose now adopted by many conservatives who eagerly lined up at the trough at the time.

During the ’08 campaign, Ron Paul supporters held the first modern "Tea Party" rallies and fundraisers (though the term re-ignited courtesy of a Washington State-based conservative blogger named Liberty Belle who called for Tea Party-themed anti-stimulus rallies in early ’09). Paul’s supporters dominated on-line polls and dwarfed other candidates when it came to a record one-day "money bomb" on-line fundraising.

The rise of pro-life libertarians in the mold of the Paul family have given social conservatives a way to square the circle between these very different worldviews.

Paul’s influence even led his son Rand, an ophthalmologist by training, to win a U.S. Senate seat, beating a Mitch McConnell-backed candidate in Kentucky’s GOP primary on the way to a general election victory in 2010.

But Ron Paul’s outsized intellectual influence hasn’t yet translated to broad-based electoral appeal. Despite enjoying the most enthusiastic supporters, he ultimately won 16 Republican delegates in the 2008 campaign with results like a fifth place showing in New Hampshire, despite a ideological enthusiastic hometown crowd of "Free Staters" who flooded the "Live Free or Die" state to exercise their libertarian beliefs. Nonetheless, there is still no shortage of enthusiasm or confidence among Ron Paul supporters—before the announcement of this exploratory committee, his fans on RonPaul.com simply asked: “Ron Paul Can Win in 2012! But Will He Actually Run?”

Given the deepening appeal of libertarianism—and Paul’s established status as an ideas icon but not a winner of broad popular elections—it’s a bit frustrating that the other avowed libertarian in the 2012 presidential race is still fighting to get noticed. After all, Gary Johnson is not some loud-mouthed vanity candidate—he is the former two-term governor of a pivotal swing state. But while his successor, Bill Richardson was taken seriously as a candidate in 2008 and the newly elected Susana Martinez is already fawned over by the conservative press, Johnson is comparatively ignored.

In Johnson, however libertarians might have their most accomplished modern advocate—a proven vote getter with demonstrated crossover appeal, a self-made millionaire and iron-man competitor who supports marijuana legalization (and let’s be honest, that libertarian plank has always been a source of the movement’s popularity on college campuses). More importantly, he has actually reined in government spending as an executive—leaving his successor a budget in the black.

So why hasn’t Johnson gotten more conservative activist attention? “The mainstream media portrays Mitt Romney as the poster-boy of conservatism. So conservatives everywhere should be able to appreciate the frustration in the libertarian community, where Ron Paul is the media's go-to guy for libertarianism,” says Owen Brennan, an avowed libertarian and executive producer of PJTV. “Former Governor Gary Johnson has executive experience, complete with budget battles, tax debates and front-row seats to the illegal immigration crisis. He has a world-view that includes a proper role for government. Mainstream journalists may first notice what Johnson is not, though. He's not reflexive isolationist, he's not crying to abolish the Fed and he doesn't have a posse of 9/11 Truthers shouting down his political opponents. Is there room in the race for Johnson's brand of libertarianism? Absolutely.”

There is an additional degree of difference that causes conservatives’ agita—Johnson is a consistent believer in individual freedom of choice when it comes to abortion. The rise of pro-life libertarians in the mold of the Paul family have given social conservatives a way to square the circle between these very different worldviews. Rand Paul, for example, is opposed to abortion even in the cases of rape and incest—and forcing a woman to carry her rapists’ baby to term is a big government imposition if there ever was one. But this illogical leap makes the Pauls’ comparatively safe for conservatives, whereas Johnson remains renegade—despite his demonstrated success as a popular budget-cutting executive in office.

The proliferation of principled libertarian candidates for president is a good thing for our national debates and for the Republican Party. Too often, libertarian rhetoric is invoked without any consistent follow-through, as in assurance offered by conservatives that 2010 was all about fiscal issues, with social conservatism taking a back seat. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence of hypocrisy in that direction, from the proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood on down.

That’s why it’s a mistake for supporters of Paul or Johnson to believe that the Tea Party rally enthusiasm that drove the mid-term elections will translate to a 2012 presidential victory. After all, despite their receptivity to libertarian rhetoric, polls of Tea Partiers found a 70 percent approval for George W. Bush. That’s evidence of a reaction more than a revolution.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.