WASHINGTON, D.C. — There are two stories coming out of New Hampshire. The big story is Mitt Romney. The bigger one is Ron Paul.
Romney won a major victory with nearly 40 percent of the vote, 16 points ahead of No. 2. The split among his challengers made the outcome even more decisive. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were diminished by distant, lower-tier finishes. Rick Perry got less than 1 percent. And Jon Huntsman, who staked everything on New Hampshire, came in a weak third with less than half of Romney’s vote. He practically moved to the state — and then received exactly one-sixth of the vote in a six-man contest. Where does he go from here?
But the bigger winner was Ron Paul. He got 21 percent in Iowa, 23 in New Hampshire, the only candidate other than Romney to do well with two very different electorates, one more evangelical and socially conservative, the other more moderate and fiscally conservative.
Paul commands a strong, energetic, highly committed following. And he is unlike any of the other candidates. They’re out to win. He admits he doesn’t see himself in the Oval Office. They’re one-time self-contained enterprises aiming for the White House. Paul is out there to build a movement that will long outlive this campaign.
Paul is less a candidate than a “cause,” to cite his election-night New Hampshire speech. Which is why that speech was the only one by a losing candidate that was sincerely, almost giddily joyous. The other candidates had to pretend they were happy with their results.
Paul was genuinely delighted with his, because, after a quarter-century in the wilderness, he’s within reach of putting his cherished cause on the map. Libertarianism will have gone from the fringes — those hopeless, pathetic third-party runs — to a position of prominence in a major party.
Look at him now. He’s getting prime-time air, interviews everywhere and, most important, respect for defeating every Republican candidate but one. His goal is to make himself leader of the opposition — within the Republican Party.
He is Jesse Jackson of the 1980s, who represented a solid, African-American, liberal-activist constituency to which, he insisted, attention had to be paid by the Democratic Party. Or Pat Buchanan (briefly) in 1992, who demanded — and gained — on behalf of social conservatives a significant role at a convention that was supposed to be a simple coronation of the moderate George H.W. Bush.
No one remembers Bush’s 1992 acceptance speech. Everyone remembers Buchanan’s fiery and disastrous culture-war address. At the Democratic conventions, Jackson’s platform demands and speeches drew massive attention, often overshadowing his party’s blander nominees.
Paul won’t quit before the Republican convention in Tampa. He probably will not do well in South Carolina or Florida, but with volunteers even in the more neglected caucus states, he will be relentlessly collecting delegates until Tampa. His goal is to have the second-most delegates, a position of leverage from which to influence the platform and demand a prime-time speaking slot — before deigning to support the nominee at the end. The early days of the convention, otherwise devoid of drama, could very well be all about Paul.
The Democratic convention will be a tightly scripted TV extravaganza extolling the Prince and his wise and kindly rule. The Republican convention could conceivably feature a major address by Paul calling for the abolition of the Fed, FEMA and the CIA; American withdrawal from everywhere; acquiescence to the Iranian bomb — and perhaps even Paul’s opposition to a border fence lest it be used to keep Americans in. Not exactly the steady, measured, reassuring message a Republican convention might wish to convey. For libertarianism, however, it would be a historic moment: mainstream recognition at last.
Put aside your own view of libertarianism or of Paul himself. I see libertarianism as an important critique of the Leviathan state, not a governing philosophy. As for Paul himself, I find him a principled, somewhat wacky, highly engaging eccentric. But regardless of my feelings or yours, the plain fact is that Paul is nurturing his movement toward visibility and legitimacy.
Paul is 76. He knows he’ll never enter the promised land. But he’s clearing the path for son Rand, his better placed (Senate versus House), more moderate, more articulate successor.
And it matters not whether you find amusement in libertarians practicing dynastic succession. What Paul has already wrought is a signal achievement, the biggest story yet of this presidential campaign.