A couple of thoughts, neither terribly original. First, his remarkable fundraising success is good news for extremists everywhere. I don’t mean to use “extremist” pejoratively; I just mean that the entire apparatus of national politics in this country, from how the parties are organized to how the media covers election, has evolved (or been intelligently-designed, perhaps) to exclude anyone who deviates too far from what's understood in Washington as the political mainstream. When “extreme” figures manage to break through and succeed in this sytem, it’s usually because they aren’t really that extreme at all – see Newt Gingrich, for instance, a center-right futurist whom the press painted (with an assist from his own undisciplined mouth) as a fascist nutjob, or Howard Dean, a moderate liberal who was cast as the second coming of George McGovern because he opposed the Iraq War and acted, well, angry. Whereas Ron Paul actually is an extremist, insofar as he holds positions that are way, way outside the Beltway mainstream. And his (admittedly limited) successes hint at an internet-enabled future in which, for good or ill, a hundred ideologically-diverse flowers can bloom - or at least run ads in New Hampshire.
Second, if it wasn’t clear already it should be clear now: Paul ought to run as a Libertarian in the fall. Those Republicans who say that Paul is too far outside the party, ideologically-speaking, to be running for its nomination aren’t that far wrong: I suspect that if the Democrats take the White House, certain elements in the GOP will rediscover their 1990s-vintage fealty to a Quincy Adams foreign policy, but for now at least Paul’s positions are at once popular enough for him to run a well-funded campaign and almost completely unrepresented in the mainstream of either party. Which is precisely the stuff of which principled third party runs are made. I doubt that even an impressive Paul performance (say, 5 percent of the vote) would make the Libertarian Party a viable force in American politics (particularly since much of his support would come from single-issue anti-war voters with little interest in constitutionalism); his run, like every other third-party run before it, would be too personality-driven to create a lasting legacy. But if he believes what he says he believes – and particularly if the race comes down to Hillary-Rudy, or even Hillary-Romney - it’s at the very least worth the effort.
Photo by Flickr user Revolute used under a Creative Commons license.
Ross Douthat is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.