Mitt Romney Will Have to Work for Libertarian Support

It’s become pretty clear that Congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.) isn’t going to win the GOP presidential nomination. Following his fourth place showing in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, Paul’s campaign announced that it would concentrate its efforts on the fourteen remaining caucus states. Even in the unlikely event that Paul sweeps the caucus states, he will receive no more than 500 delegates* — far short of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. The best Paul can hope to accomplish through this strategy is a brokered convention at which he would unquestionably be rejected as the GOP nominee by the party establishment. Even this outcome is unlikely. Like it or not, it’s time to face reality: Ron Paul will not be the Republican candidate for president.

This leaves libertarians with a choice. We can choose to support either former Governor Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), or former Governor Gary Johnson (L-N. Mex.).

Many libertarians might be inclined to cast their ballots for Johnson in order to send a message to the GOP. But anyone who is inclined to believe that Johnson could actually win the general election should disillusion himself immediately. The electoral game is too rigged in favor of the two major parties for a third party to break through and in any case the Libertarian Party’s nomination process occurs too late in the year for Johnson to have time to assemble the kind of grassroots coalition he would need to accomplish such a feat. Casting a vote for Johnson will only have the effect of sending a message to Republicans. Libertarians may want to consider how well that strategy worked with Bob Barr in ‘08. At best, Johnson may play the role of spoiler in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest. The message that could send to Republicans is that libertarians are more an electoral thorn in their side than a valuable part of their base.

Faced with a choice between Romney and Gingrich, it would seem that Romney is the better option for libertarians. As our own Jeremy Kolassa has written, Gingrich — far from being a limited government, Tea Party conservative — is more like the Republican version of Barack Obama. Jason Pye has noted that Gingrich supported a federal individual mandate long before RomneyCare was signed into law in Massachusetts. Romney, meanwhile, is a Washington outsider with experience as a businessman in the private sector. He has offered a more consistent and coherent limited government platform than Gingrich has offered. And as an added bonus, he was elected governor of a state that has been dominated by Democrats for decades.

If Romney wants to woo libertarians and limited government conservatives, though, he’s going to have to work for our votes. His setback in South Carolina occurred at least in part because liberty-minded voters still don’t trust him. But the unrestrained demagoguery on display during last night’s State of the Union address may give Romney an opportunity to restate his case to these voters as they reflect once again on why this election is so important. If he wants to appeal to libertarians, Romney should take Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S. Car.) advice and immediately adopt some of Congressman Paul’s ideas, including abolishing some executive departments and agencies, reining in or abolishing the Federal Reserve, and — perhaps most importantly — restoring our civil liberties.

But if Romney really wants to reach out to libertarians and limited government, Tea Party conservatives, he should float some potential libertarian and Tea Party running mates. This would assure libertarian and Tea Party voters that Romney is serious about addressing their concerns as president, but more than that it would also guarantee them their rightful and inevitable place at the top in the GOP’s future. Here are a few potential libertarian and Tea Party running mates whom Romney might consider:

Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) - It’s widely recognized among Ron Paul’s supporters that his son Rand will carry on his legacy following this presidential race and the elder Paul’s retirement from Congress. Floating Sen. Paul as a potential running mate would signal to Congressman Paul’s supporters that his legacy will have a place of honor in the Republican Party. Sen. Paul could also help deliver libertarian and Tea Party Appalachians and Southerners for Romney. Of course there would also be downsides to a Romney-Paul ticket. Right or wrong, much of the elder Paul’s baggage would be thrusted onto the shoulders of Paul the younger and this could potentially make Sen. Paul a liability as a running mate.

Governor Gary Johnson (L-N. Mex.) - As I’ve noted, Johnson could be a major headache for Republicans in the Land of Enchantment and elsewhere in the Southwest come November. Floating him publicly as a potential running mate and holding private discussions with him could persuade him to drop his Libertarian Party bid for the presidency, which could help Romney a great deal in the general election. Moreover, Johnson could help deliver New Mexico — a state that went for Obama in ‘08 — and other swing states in the Southwest. The downside is that it would probably be rather difficult to convince Johnson to backtrack on his third party run at this point. And besides, GOP voters may not accept a man who has just switched parties as their party’s vice presidential candidate.

Senator Mike Lee (R-Ut.) - Sen. Lee is a rising star in the GOP, elected in 2010 as part of the new Tea Party freshman class. Along with Rand Paul, Lee has been one of the most consistent advocates for liberty and limited government in the Senate. One of Lee’s downsides is that he is still relatively unknown outside of pundit, blogger, and activist circles. Another is that Romney likely won’t need Lee’s help delivering the reliably Republican Beehive State in the general election, although Lee could be helpful elsewhere in the West.

Congressman Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) - Congressman McClintock, who sometimes contributes here at United Liberty, was first elected to Congress in 2008 — a tough year nationwide for the GOP. McClintock has been a consistent advocate for limited government and civil liberties in the House of Representatives. He has been especially outspoken in his opposition to Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the SOPA/PIPA internet censorship legislation. Before being elected to Congress, McClintock had a long career in the California State Assembly. He could help Romney be competitive in California and in the neighboring Southwest. Again, though, he’s relatively unknown outside of pundit, blogger, and activist circles.

Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) - Congressman Flake has long been a favorite among libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Like Johnson and McClintock, Flake could help Romney considerably in the Southwest. One downside to floating Congressman Flake as a potential running mate is that he’s currently running for the U.S. Senate seat left open by Jon Kyl’s retirement. Taking Flake out of that race would introduce a degree of uncertainty that could hand Arizona’s open Senate seat to Democrats.

Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) - Congressman Ryan has earned quite a bit of credibility among libertarians and Tea Party conservatives for the work he has done on entitlement reform as chairman of the House Budget Committee. If Romney floats Ryan as his running mate, he’ll be signaling that he’s very serious about entitlement reform. But that blessing could also be a bit of a curse as many Americans are still wary of entitlement reform. A Romney-Ryan ticket would force Romney to own the Ryan budget proposal on a daily basis during the general election campaign. Before even floating Ryan as a potential running mate, Romney must decide whether or not he wants to take that kind of ownership of a hot potato like entitlement reform.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-S. Car.) - You’ll be hard pressed to find a politician more beloved by Tea Party conservatives than Sen. DeMint. There’s no question that choosing DeMint as a running mate would help Romney reignite Tea Party enthusiasm and solidify his position in the South. But DeMint does have his drawbacks. He could prove to be a running mate just as polarizing as former Governor Sarah Palin (R-Ak.). Moreover, while DeMint would help Romney among Tea Party conservatives his social conservatism may prove a liability for him among libertarians who emphasize a hands-off approach to social issues.

Governor Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.) - Gov. Daniels has been an outspoken critic of Washington’s spending extravaganza and has thus earned the respect of both libertarians and fiscal conservatives. But floating Daniels as a potential running mate carries some risks. Daniels is more of an old-style deficit hawk than a fiscal libertarian, having floated the idea of a value-added tax (VAT) and an oil tariff hike. Moreover, while his proposed “truce” on social issues may appeal to libertarian voters it has drawn the ire of social conservatives. That he served as Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will no doubt also come up during the general election, as President Obama made clear last night that he intends to run against the memory of George W. Bush again this year.

These are just a few potential running mates that Romney could float to appeal to libertarians and limited government conservatives. There are others. Whether he’ll actually follow this advice to reach out to libertarians and liberty-minded conservatives is an open question. But if he does, we should give him a second look. It may be tempting to go third party in an attempt to send a message to the GOP. But President Obama made clear last night that a second term will, at a minimum, mean more of the same. It could also mean something worse as he will no longer be constrained by reelection concerns. We need to bear that in mind as we progress through this campaign season.

* This delegate count is approximate because it does not include potential delegates from U.S. Territories.

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