Run, Ron, Run?
I’m not in the mood to write about today’s Big Story right now (a federal District Judge ruled the individual mandate portion of the health care reform bill unconstitutional for those of you living on the moon). So instead, I’ll write about something that is, at least now, pretty trivial.
In an interview today in the New York Times (page A1, no less!), Ron Paul states that “it’s at least 50-50 that I’ll run again,” meaning that he thinks there’s at least a 50% chance he’ll run in the 2012 Republican Presidential primary. Combined with the increasing likelihood that former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson will also be running in that primary, this creates the strong prospect of two more or less proud libertarians running in the 2012 primary. This leads Matt Welch to ask of libertarians “Which of the four possible scenarios (Paul & Johnson both run, neither of them run, or one of them runs) would you prefer, and why?”
I think the answer here is pretty clearly that libertarians are best off if both run. There is, to be sure, a virtual guarantee that Johnson and Paul would split the libertarian vote within the GOP primary such as it exists. But let’s be honest here: neither of them are going to come remotely close to winning the nomination under any conceivable circumstances.
What both Johnson and Paul running would accomplish is that it would double the rather minimal attention paid to libertarians and libertarianism during the primary process. It would mean twice as many questions directed towards libertarian candidates during the tedious debate process. It would also mean significantly more national television appearances for libertarian candidates.
Most importantly, it would provide the potential for a real story in November in which the “libertarian vote” becomes something to which the media pays actual attention, and indeed becomes an electoral theme. This is for the simple reason that Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are somewhat different types of libertarians, with Paul being a hero of the paleo-libertarians and Johnson a hero of so-called “cosmopolitan libertarians.” These differences are not entirely libertarian inside baseball, but instead mean that Paul and Johnson speak about things diffently, focus on different things, and may even have some specific policy disagreements on fairly important issues. The non-libertarians to whom Paul and Johnson will appeal, then, are likely to be very different groups, while there will also be some self-described libertarians who find Paul unpalatable and some who find Johnson unpalatable, even as a protest vote.
The result is thus that, while neither one of them would be likely to exceed 10-15% of the vote in a prolonged primary campaign by themselves (and I’m being generous here since Paul didn’t break 10% in any primary until he was effectively McCain’s only opponent in 2008), combined the pair may be able to pull 15-20% of that vote, maybe a little more if the political climate continues to encourage a focus on issues where libertarian views are broadly popular amongst Republicans.
As I’ve said before, the best that libertarians can probably ever hope for as an electoral force is to become a group worth pandering to. We’re never going to win a national election on our own, and we will always of necessity be a junior member of any electoral coalition.
Having two more or less unabashedly libertarian candidates in the 2012 GOP Primary is probably one of the only realistic ways to achieve this in the short run (and I’m by no means suggesting that even this is all that realistic a hope). At a minimum, it would increase mass media coverage of libertarianism. Ideally, it would also lead to mass media portraying libertarians as a critical portion of the electorate that the media will make a theme of the campaign. In this ideal outcome, the successor to Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads will be, uhh, Dr. Who Viewers.*
And this is important. Even though political science tells us that Presidential elections are almost entirely a function of external factors like the state of the economy and war fatigue, neither the media nor the political consultants who run our government seem to much care and instead seem to prefer to focus on tedious minutiae and evidence-free discussions of “mandates” and the importance of “messaging.” The media and political consultants, once an election is concluded, have little desire to do anything but spend weeks and months arguing over what “message” the American people, or some arbitrarily-identified group of voters, was sending with the election results. This, I suppose, allows political consultants and pundits to justify their jobs, and media organizations to increase their ratings/readership, in a way that simply pointing out that the voters were merely saying what everyone already knew (ie, “the economy sucks,” or “the economy is buzzing”) could never accomplish.
In any event, though, the surest way for the average libertarian to influence policy in Washington is ultimately to make the media think that the libertarian vote matters such that the libertarian vote gets to be the latest arbitrarily selected group of critical voters. As far as 2012 goes, a comparatively good way to accomplish that is to have multiple libertarian candidates with some legitimate differences between them, thus maximizing the apparent electoral strength of libertarians.
*Full disclosure: I have never myself actually watched Dr. Who. This makes me the world’s only non-Dr. Who watching libertarian.