Phil speaks for many Ron Paul supporters who, to judge from what I’ve seen on Facebook, never expected that Rand Paul would endorse Mitt Romney. I’m a little surprised at the reaction, as Senator Paul has adopted from the beginning an approach to retail politics rather different from his father’s. Ron Paul has held the party as far at arm’s length as possible while remaining within it, going so far as to endorse an assortment of third-party candidates in 2008. That’s highly unusual even for a principled dissenter — Pat Buchanan, after all, ultimately endorsed Bush I and Dole in the 1990s and Bush II in 2004. There are two strategies here: one is to build a party-within-a-party, almost literally a third party within the GOP. This keeps your movement pure, in its adherents’ minds at least, but it also means that most grassroots Republicans do not think you and your supporters are really good-faith members of the party, and that makes it hard to convert those voters to your side. We saw this play out in Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign: he did very well with independents and non-Republicans in Republican contests, but he did not do well enough among GOP voters to win a single primary.
The second strategy, which Buchanan adopted and now Rand seems to be testing, is to be loyal to the party while establishing yourself as one of its philosophical poles: Buchanan was the party’s social-conservative pole in the 1990s, and Rand has a strong claim to being the constitutionalist pole today. The advantage here is that regular Republicans are open to your message — hence Buchanan could win the 1996 New Hampshire primary — but part of the price to paid is support for the party’s nominee. Rand may have a better shot at succeeding through this strategy than Buchanan did, since PJB challenged both the economic dogmas of the party and its foreign policy, while Rand only challenges its foreign-policy (and related civil-liberties) assumptions. Neocons waged an unceasing campaign in the 1990s — carried on by Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review to this day — to brand Buchanan as something other than a conservative and a Republican. His economic views came under attack at least as often as his foreign policy because his enemies sensed a political weakness.
In fact, we can deduce something important from the preference Buchanan’s enemies have sometimes shown for going after his economic views: the GOP base and the conservative movement are more divided on foreign policy than they are on economics. Note the surprisingly strong pushback Frum’s “Unpatriotic Conservatives” attack on right’s anti-Iraq War dissidents received. That year was the high-water mark of neoconservatism and war fever, yet it still proved impossible to pull off a complete purge — Robert Novak, for one, survived the assassin’s dagger. Now that the neoconservatives have been discredited in more than a few right minds (and even pragmatic, what’s-in-it-for-me political minds) by what their wars have wrought, reading out someone like Rand Paul on grounds of “unpatriotic conservatism” would be impossible. And now he’s made it hard for the militarists and big-government cons to read him out on grounds of disloyalty to the party, too.
It’s possible that the integration strategy will backfire, that by lending support to Romney it will lend support to the neocons eager to occupy his administration and who already fill the ranks of his foreign-policy advisers. But the attempt to build a third party has comprehensively failed, as the sorry annals of the Libertarian, Constitution, and Reform parties show, and the attempt to build a party-within-a-party showed no signs this year of having a chance. If the integration strategy fails — and giving up one’s principles would be the greatest failure of all, yet so far Rand’s Senate record is pretty good, and PJB never surrendered his realism or economic nationalism for the sake of Bush or Dole — then the liberty movement will have to try something else. There’s no a priori path to succeeding in politics in order to change policy in this country; like many things, political strategy is a matter of trial and error.
All of this only describes what politicians have to think about. Voters are another subject, and organs of ideas, such as magazines and think tanks, must play a very different role from organs of power, such as parties. Voters and thinkers ought to be a check on power and partisanship — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t understand how that very different world works.