It was an unusual scene over at Camp Liberty: bikers and nuns, veterans and pacifists, and students and students and students rallying to the banner of Ron Paul, celebrating an ornery and exuberant subculture that is in the Republican party but not necessarily of it. I’m pretty sure this was the only corner of the GOP’s big show in Ames, Iowa, to host a folk singer covering “The Times They Are A-Changing.” (His own ditties were a little less poetic than Bob Dylan’s, but then it’s hard to work “slaves to the banks that cause hyperinflation” into a well-shaped line.) It is a big tent, after all.
Ron Paul, to nobody’s great surprise, capitalized on his organizational depth and the unique enthusiasm of his followers to finish second — a close second — in the Ames Straw Poll. “People ask me if I’ve moved to the mainstream,” he says. “What has happened is that the mainstream has come in our direction. It’s not necessarily momentum for me personally, but for the philosophy of freedom.”
But in an important sense, the Paul movement is about Ron Paul personally, which is critical to his showing in the Ames Straw Poll but less helpful in the wider campaign. Mitt Romney’s advocates have second and third choices. Pawlenty and Cain supporters might get poached by Perry or Bachmann. Ron Paul’s followers don’t have a No. 2 choice — not Gary Johnson, not any other Republican. Give them liberty or give them . . . not death, but an incentive to stay home on Election Day. Ron Paul supporters aren’t really in the Republican party; they’re in the Ron Paul party. And on Saturday afternoon, it was a party in both senses of the word.
“This isn’t an online poll,” Paul heir and campaigner-in-chief Sen. Rand Paul says. “This isn’t 200 people at a picnic.” Rand Paul, whose eye for illuminating political details led him to declare himself “pro-choice for lightbulbs,” shares an observation on government overreach: “We have an EPA that carries weapons. We have a Department of Agriculture that carries weapons. Just the other day, the Department of Agriculture sent a SWAT team to raid an organic food store for selling milk straight from the cow.” That’s the kind of thing that pumps up Paul partisans.
And pumped up they are. This may be Ron Paul’s last campaign, but one thing that became clear over the past few days is that the Ron Paul party is also the Rand Paul party, in a deeper sense than has always been obvious in light of the younger Paul’s sometimes wary handling of his father’s ideologically maximalist positions. The senator from Kentucky was hailed from the stage by his father’s Iowa chairman as a future presidential contender himself.
Much more polished and thoughtful than his father, Senator Paul seemed very much like the man in charge on Team Paul. With Paul pere retiring from the House and his chances of being elected president remote, there was the sense of a torch being passed between generations.
But not just yet. For the moment, Camp Liberty is content to celebrate Paul’s showing in Iowa. They almost certainly are reading more into the day’s events than is warranted, and Paul’s high-grade libertarianism remains a distinctly minority disposition in American politics. But it is not an inconsequential minority, and it is not one that Republicans can afford to ignore in 2012, regardless of who the nominee is.