As I read Robert Costa’s Corner post this morning, I had a thought: Will the rise of Ron Paul make it harder for a viable “Romney alternative” to emerge in the primary? When Paul argues — as he does in the embedded YouTube clip — that the Republican party is moving in his direction, he’s inarguably right, at least regarding economic policy. There’s little doubt that the Tea Party has moved the Republican party in a more libertarian direction, both in economic and constitutional philosophy, and the most recent polling reflects Paul’s broader appeal.
In 2008, the opposition to the Massachusetts individual mandate was muted, in part because it was a new program, in part because it was designed with substantial assistance from a prominent conservative think tank, in part because other issues dominated the debate, and in part because the purely libertarian argument against mandates had very little public traction. The lack of a strong (and popular) libertarian counter-argument against the mandate is one reason why the most cursory google searches show that Daniels, Pawlenty, Huntsman, and Gingrich, all considered or supported the individual mandate.
But if the libertarian counter-argument is gaining traction, who stands to benefit? Perhaps Sarah Palin, perhaps Michelle Bachmann, but certainly Ron Paul, the race’s most prominent libertarian. If he can vacuum up 10% of the Republican primary electorate, including many of the most libertarian voters, it will be much more difficult for a true “Romney alternative” to emerge from the economic right (I say “economic right” because Paul’s arguments on foreign policy and Israel sound more like the academic left).
Ron Paul’s supporters are legendary for their enthusiasm. He can raise more money than many of his more mainstream opponents. His libertarian “street cred” is unquestioned. And his message is resonating more than it ever has. Can he win between 10 and 20 percent of any given primary or caucus vote? I think it’s possible, and if that happens, it will be very, very difficult for any single other candidate to break through and challenge Mitt.