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Why the GOP can't afford to ignore Ron Paul and his many fans

  • Feb. 1, 2012: GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, at a news conference in Las Vegas.AP

  • Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas is seen on stage greeting supporters during a campaign rally in Columbia, S.C., Friday, Jan., 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)AP

Ron Paul has stopped actively campaigning in forthcoming primary contests, and after Texas everyone agrees that Romney has the nomination effectively locked up. But Ron Paul’s people are still striving to rack up as many delegates as he can at state Republican Party conventions before the Tampa .

He’s continued to do it too—even after his May announcement that many in media spun as “Paul drops out,” the Texas Congressman cleanly won control of his second state delegation at Minnesota’s state convention. 

This past weekend in a chaotic and divided state GOP convention in Louisiana, in which two Paul activists were injured by police, it appears likely that he controls the delegation in that state too. (Since the convention literally split in two, the national party will have to eventually decide between two competing delegations, but the Paulite convention had the majority.) 

Paul also previously won Maine, and has strong hope of coming out of the state convention later this month in Iowa controlling their delegation as well.

Still, Paul’s campaign admits they know Romney will win the Republican Party's presidential nomination. This has led many to wonder exactly what Paul’s trying to accomplish at the August GOP convention in Tampa. Prominent speaking slot? Platform influence? Sway over the vice presidential slot?

But what the GOP establishment needs to wonder is: what do his supporters want, and why?

Paul himself will likely not be a political player past 2013, when he leaves the House seat he’s held since 1997. But his supporters skew so young, they’ll be shaping the Party’s future far longer than Romney’s fans will. 

Paul can attract over 7,000 students to come hear him speak, a level of enthusiasm no other GOP figure can muster. He’s now got 110,000 signed-up members for his “Youth for Ron Paul” group.

Why are they so passionate about this unlikely political champion? And why is their energy so hard to contain even by Paul’s own campaign, who talk of their desire for more “decorum” on the part of their often rowdy and contentious supporters?

Most politicians sell comfort—that American is the greatest, rich and mighty and right, and what small problems we have can be solved by electing our guy and getting rid of the other guy. Ron Paul wins passionate devotion selling a vision of great discomfort. 

He tells us American foreign policy is misguided and understandably earns us enemies. He sees America not on the rise, but in decline because of Federal Reserve-primed booms and busts and a crushing debt burden. 

He decries the American government for not protecting our liberties but rather unjustly oppressing its citizens over everything from medical marijuana to raw milk.

Unfortunately for Paul’s fans, the radical solutions the Paul worldview demands—an end to overseas military adventurism, ending government’s ability to manipulate paper currency, severe cuts in spending on all the myriad income-shifting promises Washington makes -- don’t register as “practical solutions” to those who helped create the crises those policies have led us to. And that’s both the Democrats and Paul’s own Republican Party. 

Even though Paul’s budget plan, with its three-year glide path to a balanced budget with no tax hikes, was found by U.S. Budget Watch, a non-partisan research group, to be the only budget plan offered by GOP candidates this year that would not balloon the national debt, the Republican Party is scared of him. Even though his supporters continue to win control of delegations (Maine, Minnesota, and Louisiana) or state party structures (in Iowa and Nevada), the Party doesn’t want to embrace him.

Because if Ron Paul is right about the dangers of government overextension both at home and abroad, it means the GOP has to actually be serious about this limited government, living-within-our-means stuff that is supposed to be the very marrow of conservatism. 

If they have to swallow some sour apples about returning the U.S. military to its original goal of just actually defending the U.S. and make the government respect citizens’ civil liberties, that should be a small price to pay to attract the loyalty, votes and money of a rising generation of activists. 

Paul’s people have given money and rallied in amounts and numbers far exceeding such other GOP hopefuls as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Paul’s fans gave nearly as much money to his campaign as those other two candidates combined.

The Goldwater movement in 1960 was seen as too young, too radical and too outside the mainstream by the GOP establishment of its day. 

The religious right during the 1988 Pat Robertson campaign was seen as an overly loud and pushy minority. 

But just as those minorities grew and dominated the GOP, the libertarian-leaning energy of the Ron Paul movement is primed to shape the future of the Republican Party. With their unique seriousness about reining in a government drowning in debt, neither the Republican Party nor the country can afford to ignore the concerns of Paul’s devotees.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor of Reason magazine and author of  the new book "Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired" (HarperCollins/Broadside).