The Texas congressman could back his party's nominee. But the likely standard-bearer of another party better reflects his views.
Says Grover Norquist, the longtime conservative activist: "Ron Paul is the only candidate for the Republican nomination whose endorsement will matter to Mitt Romney." Provocative. Go on.
"It is the only endorsement that will bring votes and the only endorsement, if withheld, that could cost Romney the general election," he writes. "If Ron Paul speaks at the GOP convention (as he was not invited to do in 2008), the party will be united and Romney will win in November 2012. If Ron Paul speaks only at his own rally in Tampa, Florida (as happened at the 2008 GOP convention in Minnesota) the party will not be at full strength." A plausible (if contested) hypothesis.
So should Paul endorse?
For many of his most ardent fans, the answer is "Hell, no." They insist he's in it to win it. Maybe so. And if or when he's mathematically unable to win the nomination? They'd urge a third-party run. Affinity for ideologically pure candidates would make them uncomfortable with their champion becoming complicit in Romney 2012.
There are three counterarguments -- the strongest cases for a Paul endorsement of Romney, if it comes to that.
- Extract a big concession. The strongest argument in favor of endorsing is that Paul could get something important to him and his supporters in return. A pledge to investigate the Fed. An attorney general friendly to civil libertarians. A drug czar intent on winding down, rather than ratcheting up, the War on Drugs. Is there any doubt that Romney would concede something major if he thought it was the difference between winning and losing in November? On the other hand, it's hard to see how Paul could reliably enforce such a pledge if Romney won.
Would you trust that guy's handshake agreement?
- Do it for Rand Paul. The Kentucky senator is the obvious inheritor of the movement his father has built, and his quest to change the Republican Party from within would be strengthened by a seeming family commitment to stay within the GOP fold. Equivalently, his advance could be harmed if his father is thought to have cost the GOP the White House in 2012. It is unclear to me that the father's actions will actually bear that much on the career of the son, but it's certainly possible.
- Beating President Obama is that important. This is the weakest of the three arguments. On the issues that Ron Paul cares about most, it isn't actually clear whether Obama or Romney would be the preferable candidate. Can Republicans really be trusted to cut the budget if returned to power? Won't they increase the military budget? Plus Romney is ominously arguing that Obama is insufficiently hawkish, and if he's any better on civil liberties he hasn't yet shown it.
There is one more thing worth mentioning on this subject.
Especially if no major concession could be won, Paul would arguably be staying most true to his avowed ideals if he endorsed Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, who is running for the libertarian nomination. The two men are largely in agreement on size of government, foreign policy, and civil liberties, they've been similarly uncompromising in their careers, and Johnson is young enough to join Rand Paul in carrying the libertarian torch forward. Though a less talented retail politician than either of the Pauls, he also represents a definitive break with the creepy "paleo-libertarian" past that has dogged Paul and put a ceiling on his support this primary season.