Larison makes the case against it:
… as he keeps telling us, Ron Paul has no intention of running on a third party ticket or as an independent, and I think this is the right judgement. It is also entirely consistent with how Paul has campaigned to date.
Throughout the campaign, Paul has stated that his foreign policy views belong to the tradition of the Republican Party and that Bush Era interventionism is a departure from that tradition. He has made what I think is much more than a tactical appeal to Republican Party political fortunes, insisting that the GOP has to embrace non-interventionism (or at least turn against the war) if it is going to fare well in the future. He has cast his candidacy as the one that represents the best of Republicanism and the one that will make the GOP the most competitive. Whether or not you find these claims convincing, he wouldn’t have made the claims if he didn’t mean them (this is one of the fairly refreshing things about Ron Paul). Besides, to split off into a third-party campaign and guarantee a Democratic victory that is likely to happen anyway will simply provide the militarists with an excuse for their repudiation at the polls and will change nothing. The campaign more likely to steal Ron Paul’s issues would be the Democratic one, especially if Clinton is the nominee, as this would be a way of neutralising the threat of disaffected antiwar progressives who will be unhappy with a Clinton nomination defecting to a third party. A third party run would make sense only to the extent that it could realistically force the Democratic nominee to become seriously antiwar and less belligerent on Iran. Both of those seem unlikely.
I think Larison frames the question perfectly: Paul would need to decide if his constituency and the political tradition he represents would be taken more seriously in the future if he plays a spoiler role in ’08, or if he stands on the sidelines while the GOP nominee gets beaten, allowing him to say “I told you so” without being directly implicated in the defeat. But I’m not sure if Larison’s answer – which will probably be Paul’s as well – is correct. Sometimes third-party runs crystallize the marginalization of the ideas they represent: That was certainly the case with Buchanan’s 2000 candidacy, and it was arguably the case for John Anderson in 1980 and Henry Wallace in 1948. Sometimes, though, an independent bid serves as a highly effective way to punish one or both of the major parties for ignoring a key constituency: Thus George Wallace in 1968, Ross Perot in 1992, and arguably Ralph Nader in 2000. (Yes, Nader himself was vilified and ostracized by liberals for putting George W. Bush in the White House, but the constituency he represented – politically-engaged left-wingers put off by Clintonian triangulation – has seen its influence in the Democratic Party dramatically increase since 2000.) And in the event of a Giuliani-Clinton race, the general-election matchup where an independent run makes the most sense, Paul is in a strong position to peel away key constituencies from both parties – anti-war voters on the Democratic side and pro-lifers (and perhaps some anti-immigration voters, and of course the rare anti-war conservative) on the Republican side.
At the very least, one could imagine a Paul run forcing Giuliani to the right on immigration and abortion, and Clinton to the left on foreign policy; whether this would have any impact on how they’d govern is of course impossible to know, but it isn’t an insignificant consideration. Yes, Paul himself would be vilified by both sides, but if he did well enough, it’s possible to imagine the “Paul voter” becoming an object of fascination in the 2010 and 2012 elections, much as the elusive “Perot voter” was in the middle 1990s. (The Perot-voter fascination, one might note, helped midwife both the Republican Contract with America and the Democrats’ unexpected zeal for deficit-cutting.) Even on a very limited scale, this would be no small achievement, given how marginal Paulician principles have looked at various points during the Bush years. Whereas as a primary-campaign also-ran, however well-funded, I think Paul is basically a curiosity; if he wants to transcend the “Ronulan” jokes and the disdain of the Fox News moderators, he needs to take his show to the big stage and see what happens.
Photo by Flickr user MyTwistedLens used under a Creative Commons license.