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Knapp argues that Ron doesn't always call himself libertarian, selling himself sometimes as a constitutionalist or small-government conservative depending on his audience; that he's accomplished almost nothing specific that furthers libertarian goals as a congressman while sucking lots of money out of libertarian donors; and that because of Paul's campaign, the LP won't do very well in 2008. Of course, there is nothing about these complaints that wouldn't apply to any almost-entirely-libertarian federal politician short of the libertarian revolution. It seems a classic best-enemy-of-the-good maneuver, or perhaps an inadvertent declaration that libertarian electoral politics, LP or major party, is inherently pretty useless for furthering libertarian policy change.
And Paul undoubtedly falls short of his reputation as a hardcore, no-compromise-ever libertarian constitutionalist. For example, he happily inserts earmarked pork spending that benefits his district in spending bills, to keep them happy—and then votes against the bills, to keep his free-market constituents nationwide happy.
Paul argues that the voting against the total bill is enough, that the rules of Congress mean the earmarks don't actually increase total federal spending anyway, and that while he'd rather the government didn't take the money, it's not inherently a crime to try to get some of it back for his constituents.
Sure, he's trying to have it both ways. Something about Paul that sometimes evades both his fans and opponents: He's a very, very successful politician. He's won election to Congress as a nonincumbent three times—an extraordinary record. And he's won as an incumbent 7 times, with steadily growing percentage totals. One of his political skills is a chameleonic quality: Without changing the roots of his message, he's able to seem a lot of things to a lot of people by intelligently strategic choices about which Ron Paul to sell. He's a libertarian, he's a constitutionalist, he's a true conservative. When I saw him speak earlier this month at FreedomFest to an audience of mostly self-conscious libertarians, he never once mentioned immigration, emphasizing rather war and money.
So, yes: Ron Paul is by no means the perfect candidate for most American libertarians. Some find his stance on trade obtuse, his stance on abortion tyrannical; the race-baiting, however disavowed, stupid, wrong, off-putting to most Americans, and dangerous for libertarians to be associated with; his position on earmarks sleazy politician logic-chopping. They envision a horrific Ron Paul's America in which abortion and immigration are banned, the federal drug war ended but a state-level one ongoing, and a financial system wrecked with reckless goldbuggery—and libertarianism tarnished forevermore.
Libertarians leery of Paul should ask themselves (while bearing in mind that of course no one, certainly no libertarian, is under any obligation to support or advocate or vote for any politician ever): Have we ever seen a national political figure better in libertarian terms—better on taxes, on drugs, on spending, on federalism, on foreign policy, on civil liberties? And for the pragmatic, cosmopolitan, mainstream libertarian: Why is Ron Paul the place where making the non-existent best the enemy of the good becomes the right thing to do?
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.