The warnings are coming from the unlikeliest of places.
First Sarah Palin tells Fox News that “the worst thing that the GOP establishment can do is marginalize Ron Paul and his supporters.” Then that sentiment was echoed by Sen. Jim DeMint, speaking on The Laura Ingraham Show, when he warned that it would be to the party’s detriment to ignore Paul and his supporters. DeMint even gave permission for Paul to use the senator’s voice in a radio ad.
In the two Republican contests so far, Paul consistently won about 20 percent of the vote. Polls show that even in South Carolina, which is not considered hospitable territory for the Texas congressman, he is expected to take about one-sixth of the vote. It is very likely that he will reach the Republican convention with the second-highest number of delegates.
Yet, large portions of the Republican party seem torn somewhere between reading him out of the party entirely and hoping that Paul and his supporters will quietly fade away.
Many of Paul’s detractors belittle his vote totals by pointing out that much of his support has come from non-Republicans. It is true that Paul won in both Iowa and New Hampshire among independents and people who had never before voted in a Republican primary. In New Hampshire, for example, roughly 63.5 percent of his vote came from independents.
But why is that a bad thing? Given that just 35 percent of voters are registered Republicans, it stands to reason that any GOP candidate is going to have to attract the votes of independents and possibly even disaffected Democrats. Moreover, at a time when many Republican voters are holding their nose in the voting booth, Paul’s supporters are nothing if not enthusiastic. Furthermore, Paul is probably the only Republican candidate who can eat into President Obama’s hold on the youth vote.
But that enthusiasm and those votes are not going to be easily transferred to the eventual Republican standard bearer. Worse, a potential Paul third-party candidacy, while unlikely, would almost certainly guarantee Obama’s reelection.
Paul is unlikely to be bought off with a prime-time speaking spot at the Republican convention. And neither he nor his son Rand is realistically going to end up as the vice-presidential candidate. What then can Republicans do to keep Paul’s supporters in the tent?
Well, to start with, instead of deriding Paul as a RINO or some sort of a crank, and hoping his supporters go away, they might begin to take some of his ideas seriously.
As Senator DeMint says:
I don’t agree with him on everything, but he is right about the out-of-control and unaccountable Federal Reserve. He’s right about the need for limited constitutional government and the importance of individual liberty. And I really think the Republican who is going to win this thing — if they capture some of what Ron Paul’s been talking about for years. And more and more we can see that what he’s been talking about is true. Again, you don’t have to agree with everything he’s saying, but if the other candidates miss the wisdom in what he’s been saying about our monetary policy and limited government, then I think we will see it’s to their detriment because the 20 percent or 25 percent or so that are supporting him are people that we need in the Republican party. A lot of them are libertarians, but they’re our natural base. We shouldn’t ignore them.
That would mean putting forward detailed plans to reduce the size, cost, and intrusiveness of government. It would mean the candidates explaining in detail how they would reform entitlement spending and dismantle Obamacare. It would mean talking about how they will reduce the authority of unelected bureaucracies, including the Fed. It would mean ending corporate welfare, farm supports, ethanol subsidies, and bailouts. It would mean recognizing that, as Sarah Palin noted, “Americans are war-weary,” before proposing the next intervention overseas. It would mean that protecting individual liberty is important, even in an age of terrorism.
For years, Republican candidates have worried that if they didn’t hew to the hardest line possible on social issues, religious conservatives would stay home on Election Day. Economic conservatives, libertarians, and believers in smaller, constitutional government were never given similar deference. The result was a Republican party that drifted ever further away from its Goldwater-Reagan roots.
But that may be about to change. If not, Republicans can’t say they weren’t warned.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.