Post-Super Tuesday news coverage was fraught with a refrain of failure for Rep. Ron Paul. Even his campaign openly bemoaned the gap they have experienced between enthusiastic crowds at speeches and people who actually cast their lot with the candidate when it counts. But at the risk of breaking a decades long tendency to see the "glass half empty" politically, there is a clear upside for small government advocates in Ron Paul's relatively strong performance in Virginia. Yes, he lost. Yes, he lost by 20 points. But Ron Paul did something remarkable: In a head-to-head contest with the establishment Republican candidate, he pulled fully 40 percent of the vote.
In multi-party parliamentary democracies, an election is held and a governing coalition is assembled post-election. In our two party system, the process is reversed. We cobble together a governing coalition in the primaries and then have, at least in theory, a liberal coalition v. conservative coalition run-off in the general election. The Republican primary, then, can be thought of as an election contest among right of center sub-parties for which any of a number of issues ranging from cultural to foreign policy to fiscal policy may be the most important. In this context, the continued popular appeal of quirky Ron Paul, an unapologetic libertarian, is encouraging.
Who are the libertarians and why are they commanding more influence in the center-right coalition? Libertarians care about limiting the size and scope of the federal government because personal freedom is the priority. This stance can put them at cross-purposes with cultural conservatives who, ironically, join their counterparts on the left in their willingness to use the power of government to shape society into one more consistent with their moral world view. Minding our own business as a nation is also a priority for libertarians, which can put them at odds with the Republican Party's defense hawks who, particularly in a post-9/11 world, are quick to see threats to America's physical freedom. The pro-defense contingent also wants to export our influence through an interventionist foreign policy.
But the appeal of libertarian thinking is growing in the broadly-defined “conservative” coalition as evinced by the voting in Virginia, itself a good cross-section of the Republican Party. While tensions no doubt exist among factions, the rise of libertarian influence, in my opinion, will benefit the country and whichever party embraces it. As regular readers no doubt know, I'd rather have a president who is a small-government advocate than a big government conservative any day.
Consider the 2010 election: voter outrage over unprecedented government overreach into areas such as healthcare and the economy was organized and focused through a libertarian lens as center-right parties of all stripes and convictions coalesced around a war cry to shrink government spending and therefore Washington's influence over the lives of Americans. (See my posts Why Does Barack Obama Hate Savings and Investment?, 'Tis the Season: Congress Gets Ready to Tax and Spend Again, and Why Cutting Spending Is Good Politics.)
Those disgusted by the profligacy of the Bush era were galvanized into action by the continued government over-reach of the Obama administration. What happened? The "we've had it" message won over general election swing voters in droves.
Since his 2010 drubbing at the polls, Obama has cleverly reframed the national debate around fairness. Meanwhile, Republicans have been suckered into squabbling over a variety of sub-issues such as immigration, contraception, and extending the suspension of the payroll tax. While important, none of these issues can frame the great debate that must occur if the right-of-center coalition has a chance of winning the general election by rallying swing voters to its side. Specifically, the election must not be about fairness but about freedom—the freedom to practice religion however you define it, freedom to keep and spend your own money as you see fit, freedom to let markets innovate, and the freedom to let the unsuccessful fail.
As those 40 percent in Virginia who showed up and cast their vote for Ron Paul revealed, this is quintessentially a libertarian message and a crucial part of any victory in the fall.