Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Vol. 10: The Ron Paul Problem

Update: for my follow-up post on "The Ron Paul Opportunity," click here.

The conservatives who flocked to CPAC last weekend might not have seen eye to eye on everything, but one thing they did seem to agree on was that the conference's famous "straw poll" didn't really mean all that much─especially after organizers revealed that the winner, with 31 percent of the vote, was none other than 2008 presidential candidate and long time libertarian congressman Ron Paul of Texas. Townhall.com's Meredith Jessup warned against"read[ing] too much into these results," given that "this is definitely not an indication where the GOP primary elections are headed and certainly not a reflection of mainstream conservatives." Mike Huckabee,who tied for sixth with 4 percent of the vote, dismissed the outcome as well."CPAC has has become increasingly libertarian and less Republican over the last years," he told a reporter, "[which is] one of the reasons I didn't go." And Glenn Beck simply unloaded on Paul himself,calling him "a crazy, kooky guy."

Setting aside the irony of that last remark for a moment, I'd like to note, for the records, that Jessup, Huckabee, and Beck couldn't be more wrong about the straw poll results. They are, in fact, meaningful. Not necessarily for Paul, who, despite his popularity among libertarian conservatives probably won't run again for president in 2012 and almost certainly wouldn't win the Republican nomination if he did. Instead, I'm thinking about what Paul's victory and the politics it embodies means for potential candidates like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty─candidates who fell short Saturday (with 22 percent and 6 percent of the vote, respectively) but who actually do have a shot at going head-to-head with Barack Obama in the next presidential election.

My sense is that they will face some difficult decisions in the coming months. On one hand, I think the GOP will be better served with a measured,rational, grown-up conservative atop its ticket in 2012 than with someone who represents the impassioned, populist impulses of the tea-party right (like,say, Sarah Palin). By primary season, the economy will probably be improving and Obama will probably be working with an expanded Republican contingent in Congress to pass smaller, more centrist measures, which means he will likely seem more attractive to independent voters than he does right now. This could bode well for Republicans like Romney and Pawlenty, who have demonstrated pragmatic leadership skills and budget-balancing discipline as blue-state governors. Swing voters who think that Obama is too liberal and too spendthrift─but who disagree with Rush Limbaugh that he's some sort of scheming socialist villain─would likely see Romney or Pawlenty as a more plausible alternative to the president than Palin.

The problem, of course, is that acting measured, rational, and grown-up is no way to win a primary─especially when the GOP base is as agitated as the CPAC poll results suggest. On the right, voters are significantly more antigovernment and anti spending than they were a year ago: 52 percent of CPAC respondents listed "reducing the size of federal government" as their top concern, up 9 percent from 2009; "reducing government spending" came in second at 33 percent, also a 9 percent increase. Terrorism, Iraq, illegal immigration, and abortion, meanwhile, all declined by 3 to 5 percent. These are valid policy preferences. But the activist conservatives who are currently promoting them most avidly─tea-partiers, Paulites, etc.─seem less interested in finding practical solutions to Washington's endemic problems than in tearing down Washington itself. As the 2010 elections approach, this nihilistic feeling will only grow stronger, and the temptation for Pawlenty and Romney to pander─to advocate for "tak[ing] a nineiron and smash[ing] the window out of big government" or to call Democrats "neomonarchists,"as they did at CPAC─will grow along with it.

Giving in would be a mistake. Extremism might be popular now, but it won't be in 2012. The candidate who thrives over the next two years will be one who threads this needle most skillfully, delivering a rational, fiscally conservative message(entitlement reform over earmarks, for example) without indulging in the histrionics of the 9/12 crowd. Calm, cool, resistant to fringe passions─but still able to rally the troops. The one, come to think of it, who seems most Obamaesque.

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