Discussing presidential politics over the holiday season (one of the downsides of being a former White House staffer is how narrow your small talk portfolio becomes come election time), I've noticed my over-reliance on an irritating verbal tic. Every time I'm asked about Ron Paul, my reply begins with "I'm a pretty libertarian guy, but..."
What follows is probably predictable for anyone who considers themselves a libertarian rather than a Libertarian (or -- my formulation -- "libertarian" as an adjective rather than a noun). I admire Congressman Paul for pushing the conversation about limited government further than most of his primary rivals would entertain. And on certain issues (particularly the excesses of the Federal Reserve), I think he's solely responsible for opening up lines of discussion that otherwise would not have breached the presidential race.
That being said, his position on drug legalization goes entirely too far for my taste, his foreign policy views are out of communion with reality, and his penchant for entertaining -- if not actively embracing -- conspiracy theories testifies to a certain lack of seriousness (which has the unfortunate side effect of unfairly discrediting some of his more reasonable views). In short, I want someone more libertarian than the GOP establishment of the past decade but not as doctrinaire as Dr. Paul. What's remarkable to me is how much less exotic that request sounds now than it did four years ago at this time.
Today, a GOP candidate who wants to abolish cabinet departments, reassert the importance of the Tenth Amendment, and prevent future increases in the debt ceiling is more the norm than an aberration. Even among those of us who recognize real and serious threats to American national security, the conversation has trended in a more libertarian direction, with more thoughtful discussions about when military action is justified (witness the debate over Libya) or when security measures butt up against civil liberties concerns (the entire debacle that is the TSA).
In short, most of what's good about the Ron Paul candidacy has been co-opted by the Tea Party Movement. Most of what's bad has been mercifully inert. I, for one, count this as a positive development for conservatives. While prudence dictates that we won't come down on the side of unadulterated liberty as often as Dr. Paul, it's the principled place to start almost any public policy conversation.
One major difficulty remains. It's becoming increasingly clear that whoever wins the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will not be cut from this limited-government cloth. Should that candidate become the next president, particularly with a Republican congress, there will be an ideological discord. The question then becomes: will the next Republican president conform himself to the small government zeitgeist, or will the party be remade in the image of its standard-bearer?