Ben Adler is a blogger for The Nation.
With Ron Paul's consecutively finishing in the top three with more than 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, pundits keep wondering where he will run as a third-party candidate in the general election. Polls show Paul draws more heavily from moderates and liberals and independents and Democrats than do his opponents in the GOP primary. Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post said on MSNBC on Tuesday night that Paul could very well get frustrated with the views of the eventual nominee and go the third-party route. Maddow agreed that this would be a major storyline to watch.
"Paul may well adjust his thinking on a third-party bid," declares the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. Rather, he speculates that Paul will be peeved if he doesn't get sufficient concessions from the Republican Party in exchange for his endorsement. It's true that Paul may not endorse the Republican. As I reported Tuesday night, Paul's campaign readily acknowledges as much. But they deny that Paul would consider a third-party run. Paul can easily not endorse the Republican nominee but also not run as an outside candidate.
Cillizza also interprets a key data point incorrectly, writing, "Remember, he has already done it once: he ran as the Libertarian Party's presidential nominee in 1988." But Paul's 1988 run is precisely the reason he is unlikely to launch another third-party bid. Back in 1988 Paul was a former right-wing Republican. He had been one of only four congressmen to endorse Ronald Reagan for president in 1976. But he saw his small government revolution hijacked by Reagan's irresponsible deficit spending on excessive Defense programs.
Paul's Libertarian Party bid garnered only 0.47 percent of the vote. Paul saw the futility of running as a third-party candidate in a winner-take-all system that will always create a two-party duopoly. Wisely, he decided to change the Republican Party from within. Other Goldwater conservatives have come to the same conclusion. In 1980 David Koch was the Libertarian Party nominee for vice president. Today he funds various efforts to pull the Republican Party towards stauncher fiscal conservatism.
The last few decades have seen Republicans succumb to various big-government movements. There is the religious right of Pat Robertson and Rick Santorum, who want to regulate private sexual behavior. There are the neoconservatives and national security hawks that want to increase military spending. We've seen the heyday come and go for empowerment conservatives like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich who wanted to give poor people the tools — in Gingrich's case literally laptop computers — to make it out of poverty. None of the GOP presidential contenders, not even Gingrich, has a real social mobility proposal. And the national greatness conservatism of John McCain and David Brooks has fallen out of favor. When is the last time you heard a Republican argue for increasing the size of AmeriCorps? The answer is, not since 2008, when McCain and Mike Huckabee praised national service programs.
That's because Paul and Koch have been vindicated in their recent efforts. Paul's 2008 campaign, the subsequent right-wing hysteria over the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the rise of the Tea Party, culminated in the 2010 elections. Conservative activists ousted mainstream incumbents in the Republican primaries for the most minor of offenses. The new Republican Congress is resolutely ideological. It routinely passes bills to repeal environmental regulations. It threatens to shut down the government on a regular basis. And, unlike Reagan, neither it nor the Republican candidates for president will sell out by accepting even token tax increases as part of a bipartisan compromise to reduce the deficit.
This doesn't mean Paul's agenda will be fully adopted by Republicans. As I've explained, his foreign policy views are simply anathema to most of the Republican base. Expressing militarism and bellicosity is a key component of the Republican Party's white Christian nationalist identity politics and it is essential to their electoral strategy. On other issues where Paul's opponents have begun to mimic him, such as attacking the Federal Reserve, you can safely bet that soulless hacks like Gingrich and Rick Perry will change their tune as soon as their political calculation shifts.
But Paul has seen the advantages of working within the two-party system. His strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire are a testament to it. His son Rand is a Republican senator from Kentucky. As Cillizza notes, polls suggest a Paul candidacy would draw more from the Republican nominee than from President Obama, thus in effect aiding Obama's re-election effort. Activists and policy experts at Tea Party aligned groups such as FreedomWorks and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity say their views are closest to Paul's but that they will support the Republican nominee because he will be closer to them than Obama is. Why should Paul think any differently?