Shirley Li/Medill

Lost in the emotionalism surrounding Sen. Rand Paul’s endorsement of Mitt Romney are two basic realities.

First things first. Rand Paul was always going to endorse the Republican nominee. In no way has he made this a secret, and it should come as no surprise to anyone. I do not see it as an attempt to fold the Ron Paul campaign into the Romney apparatus, nor do I believe it was intended that way.

Secondly, for those of us who identify with the broader liberty movement, it is beyond dispute that Rand Paul is our strongest ally in the Senate. You will not find another Senator squaring off with the TSA, working to take down the NDAA, and taking a hard line on spending. He grasps the importance of key issues and is more than willing to connect the dots that link one bureaucratic monstrosity to another.

Still, the “when,” “where,” and “how” of the endorsement raise issues that cannot be casually dismissed.

Among critics of the endorsement, many of the more levelheaded have focused on the “when.” “Why didn’t he wait til after the convention?” is something I have seen pop up numerous times over the last several days. My suspicion is that this was done before the convention to halt any Ron Paul delegates from taking a radical stand for the Congressman at the GOP National Convention. Unfortunately, a large number of these delegates, donors to the campaign and supporters of Dr. Paul believed such a stand was the entire purpose of the much touted “delegate strategy.” Though it should be readily obvious to everyone that Ron Paul will not be the Republican nominee, it is unclear what the purpose of delegate accumulation was. To some supporters, the entire Ron Paul 2012 operation is starting to look as if its sole purpose was to set the table for a Rand Paul run in 2016, which is not what many of them signed on for.

The “where” of the endorsement is more of an annoyance than a high crime. Fox News has been no friend to Ron Paul and Sean Hannity is seen by many (myself included) as the basement floor of conservative political punditry. Endorsing the ultimate plastic politician via the ultimate plastic talking head was cringe-inducing and seemed to designed to irritate a grassroots who were sure to be confused by the message in the first place.

Speaking personally, my biggest issue with the endorsement was the ”how.” I had expected Senator Paul to endorse Mitt Romney and in some sense believed it was wise politically (as I believed it was wise for then New Jersey senatorial candidate Murray Sabrin to endorse John McCain in 2008.) I did not expect him to nod in agreement as Sean Hannity alleged a massive difference between Romney and President Obama on Obamacare, nor did I expect to hear him give a lengthy endorsement of Romney’s policy positions that included a generous appraisal of the former Massachusetts governor’s position on the Federal Reserve and a lengthy (by television standards) discussion of the Romney’s “mature” foreign policy. It is one thing to say “I am a Republican Senator from he great state of Kentucky and like the majority of my state I will gladly vote for our parties nominee in November.” It is quite another to tout Mitt Romney as a man with a sensible foreign-policy vision.

This is not a minor point because it strikes at the root of the divide the liberty movement has had over Rand Paul for some time now. Is he a man acting on pure principle, who says what he means, always votes his conscience, and will only compromise if it helps advance the cause in a meaningful sense? Or is his warming up to the power brokers in the party, via a combination of double-talk and backroom dealing, a sign that he is not as radical as some have hoped?

Watching Senator’s Paul’s endorsement I was reminded of the late senator from Minnesota Paul Wellstone. In 2000 much of the hard left was disappointed with his decision to endorse Al Gore over Ralph Nader, though there was no reason to expect him to do otherwise. To many on the left Wellstone was never truly seen as “one of them” after that, though they would regularly note that he was the “best we’ve got” in the upper chamber.

As the more radical activists in the liberty movement see it, Rand Paul may not “be one of us,” he may not be someone who some of us would feel comfortable casting a presidential ballot for, and he is definitely not an exact replica of his father. But he is “the best we’ve got.” Whether that is good enough depends in large part on his future voting record, the expectations of his supporters and detractors, and the way he publicly brands himself within a party that is still fiercely opposed to constitutionalist goals. Pragmatism is something that can be defended and sold as a necessary evil. Unprincipled, lesser-evilism cannot — at least not to this crowd.