Ron Paul’s role in the 2012 election cycle remains uncertain

Amanda Carey Contributor
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As the 2012 election cycle approaches, supporters and detractors alike are wondering how Ron Paul will capitalize on his 2008 Republican primary success, if at all. Kingmaker, candidate, or disinterested onlooker are all possibilities for the Texas congressman who told The Daily Caller he remains “definitely undecided” on another run.

Paul made a splash in the Republican presidential primaries in 2008 that went far beyond his impressive – and in some cases record breaking – fundraising numbers. Aided by his dedicated and ferociously protective supporters, known as Paulites, Paul started the election season with a surprisingly strong showing. In the Iowa caucuses, Paul picked up a very respectable 10 percent of the vote.

“A lot of people say Ron Paul failed. Well, that’s obviously not true,” said Jonathan Bydlak, Paul’s director of fundraising during the 2008 campaign who now works as former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson’s finance director. “Given where the expectations were when he announced….you wouldn’t have expected Paul to get eight or 10 percent anywhere.”

One of the biggest “Ron Paul effects” still rippling through party politics three years later is what he did to the Libertarian Party.

While the line between honest-to-goodness Libertarians (Big “L”) and libertarian-leaning Republicans naturally became smaller because of Paul, in other ways, it was only sharpened, leaving some to nervously ponder what another presidential run could do to the third party.

“Ron Paul was the best and worst thing to happen to libertarians in 2008,” said Andrew Davis, who was communications director for the Libertarian Party before becoming press secretary for the party’s presidential nominee Bob Barr during in 2008. “His campaign started the recent constitutional movement and brought libertarian ideas into the mainstream, but he also shattered this coalition when he refused to pick a successor and his campaign came to a close.”

Davis’ cynicism is understandable from the Libertarian Party’s perspective. When Paul withdrew from the presidential race in June 2008 after it was clear his campaign had run its course, he refused to endorse Barr, who was, at least on paper, the closest candidate to Paul ideologically of any presidential candidate in any party. Instead, Paul simply told voters to either not vote, or vote for any of the third party candidates.

Rank and file Libertarians Party members who welcomed Paul’s success in the Republican Party felt betrayed. Paul was a mainstream candidate who fully embodied the majority of the Libertarian platform, but refused to bless the Libertarian Party’s nominee with an endorsement once he put his Republican campaign to rest.

But the Barr-Paul relationship, at least publicly, was not always an easy one. In the summer of 2008, for example, Paul held a press conference with all the third-party candidates as part of his effort to encourage third-party voting, an event Barr backed out of attending.

“I don’t know why, but my guess is it was because he thought he was more important than the other third party candidates,” said Bydlak. “Paul kind of took it as, well, he wasn’t offended, but he thought he was doing something good, and Barr just backed out and kind of slapped him in the face.”

For all of Paul’s 2008 successes – the fundraising, the grassroots involvement, and the new awareness of libertarian causes – he was an odd force of nature within the election cycle, who elicited passionate support from the Libertarian Party base. But by the time the general election rolled around, that same base mostly chose to stay home rather than vote for Barr, Paul’s closest ideological match.

In 2012, the question is now whether Paul’s relative 2008 success can be repeated or expanded, even if the establishment sentiment is reflected in Donald Trump’s now-famous admonition to Paul supporters, “Ron Paul cannot get elected, I’m sorry to tell you.”

Complicating matters this time, however, is the reality that Paul may not be the only libertarian-leaning Republican in the presidential field, should he choose to run. Former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson has been tip toeing around announcing his candidacy for president for months now. His supporters have already dubbed him the “next Ron Paul,” which begs the question: is the Republican field big enough for two libertarians?

Johnson’s almost assured candidacy essentially erases the most significant argument for a Paul bid: that a libertarian-leaning presence is needed in the field to draw attention to libertarian issues. If both run in 2012, the only difference between the two candidacies would be seen in which libertarian positions were most emphasized. Paul, for example, may devote more energy to railing against the Federal Reserve while Johnson would certainly give more emphasis to legalizing marijuana.

Paul told TheDC he “hasn’t talked details of the politics of the presidential race” with Johnson. It seems quite conceivable, though, that Johnson’s presence in the race could foil a repeat of Paul’s 2008 success by splitting the liberty-leaning vote in the Republican primary.

But for Davis, the fact that many libertarian-leaning voters have to look to the Republican primary to find a candidate to support is a sign that, in some ways, Paul failed in 2008. “Things could have been completely different in 2008 if Paul would have passed the torch,” he said. “Instead, he got in the way of the best thing to come from his campaign.”

“That was the hardest thing to stomach during the 2008 campaign, even more so than Obama getting elected because we truly stood on the cusp of a constitutional revolution,” continued Davis. “Paul just couldn’t step out of the limelight when his time was up.”

So what role could Paul play in 2012 if he chooses not to run? It’s hard to say at this point. For a popular congressman who is famously reluctant to make endorsements, the role as kingmaker may be a stretch. When asked about his potential role in the 2012 elections, Paul told TheDC, “I have not at all thought about whether I could or would play a role in any other way.”

“I think about [running] all the time mainly because people keep asking me about it.” Paul said. “It [will take] another month or two to make a decision” and it depends “more or less if the country is receptive to my ideas.”

“Now my biggest concerns have to do with the value of the dollar and expanding foolishness of our foreign policy…that would have an influence on what I decide to do,” said Paul, adding that if the economy rebounds and America’s foreign policy changes, he may be less inclined to run.

But from a Libertarian Party’s point of view, the absence of the libertarian-leaning Paul in the 2012 presidential field could be exactly what the party needs to grow in strength.