Is Ron Paul snubbing Gary Johnson — or rebranding the GOP?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In 2008, one of the few GOP endorsements Rep. Ron Paul received for his quixotic presidential run came from New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.

Four years later, how did Paul repay Johnson’s loyalty?  A few days after Johnson announces for president, Ron Paul also threw his hat in the ring, announcing an exploratory committee.

Could it be that Paul feels this is his “turf” and that Johnson was invading it?  Could it be that Sen. Rand Paul is the only worthy successor — and that until he’s ready to inherit the libertarian dynasty — Ron will defend the family business?

That is what some are speculating.  TheDC’s Amanda Carey recently noted the tension between Paul and former Rep. Bob Barr, who was the Libertarian Party nominee in 2008.  She went on to note that Johnson’s “supporters have already dubbed him the ‘next Ron Paul,’ which begs the question: is the Republican field big enough for two libertarians?”

At least some observers think the answer to that question is “no.”

For example, as RedState’s Erick Erickson tweeted: “The RonPaul vs. GaryJohnson fan fight will be the Paulistinian version of Hamas v. Hezbollah, but with less rockets and more C++.”

There’s also a sense that Ron Paul is getting too old, and that it may be time for him to pass the torch.  As Doug Mataconis, a libertarian-leaning blogger who writes at Below The Beltway told me, “Serious libertarian-leaning Republicans should be looking at Governor Johnson, not at Ron Paul, at this point.”

On the other hand, if the goal of Paul’s candidacy is to change the debate — not to win the nomination — there is a good argument that the more libertarian-leaning candidates, the better.

Last time, Paul’s anti-interventionist policies and call for a “humble foreign policy” appeared to be “fringe” ideas — partly because he was the only one on stage espousing them. During the primary debates, on issues such as Iraq, it was essentially Paul versus Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee — and everyone else.

There is reason to believe the libertarian-leaning Republicans may be more concerned with winning the argument than the election.  In fact, in a February interview with ABC News’ Rick Klein and Amy Walter, Johnson hinted that it would be good for them both to run, saying, “Republicans need to grow their base. So I think the fact that there are a couple people talking about the same thing — arguably Ron Paul and myself — I think that’s a good thing … It needs to grow from where Ron Paul was in the last election cycle if these ideas are going to successful.”

A Paul/Johnson tag-team could impact the debate, and perhaps help to re-brand the GOP — or at least, make it a more diverse party, going forward.  As Reason’s Matt Welch opined last November: “As an unabashed Johnson supporter (which is an extremely unusual place to find myself vis-a-vis a politician), my main hope has been that at least one libertarian-minded candidate make it to the GOP’s final round in 2012. Though as one wag suggested to me on Election Night, why not two?”