It has little to do with the Texas congressman.By DANIEL HENNINGER
As if they didn't have troubles enough, the Republicans have not one, but two Ron Paul problems.
The first is a cranky congressman from Texas named Ron Paul who won't disown a third-party spoiler candidacy. The second problem is the Ron Paul vote, which as we'll see has little to do with Ron Paul.
The congressman named Ron Paul has served in the House off and on since the 1970s to no discernible effect. Every four years he runs for president, tapping into a vestigial base of Newsletter Libertarians, whose support qualifies him for the debates.
Let no one deny that swimming eternally amid the rightward waves of American politics is an ever-present school of fish that would solve Washington's spending problem mainly with cuts in the defense budget (ending foreign "entanglements"), set a place at the nuclear table for Iran ("Who are they going to bomb?"), cut Israel loose, cut the Federal Reserve loose, and legalize many currently controlled substances.
The Ron Paul vote is a separate matter. In June, polling put the familiar Mr. Paul at about 5.5% for the Iowa caucus and 8% nationally. That would be his normal ceiling. Suddenly, Ron Paul is the Iowa front-runner at over 22.5% and is up to 12% nationally. Why?
Is this surge a vote for the congressman named Ron Paul? Impossible. It's in fact the Republican Party protest vote. Since summer, this block of votes has jumped from one candidate to another, desperate for an anti-Obama champion whose anti-Washington intensity matches its own.
In July the Republican protest vote fixed on Michele Bachmann, who materialized in the No. 2 spot. In September it became the Perry vote, cresting at 31%. He couldn't debate, so in October it became the Cain vote. When he collapsed, the "left for dead" Gingrich candidacy miraculously rose to 35%. With Newt carpet-bombed and again left for dead, the GOP protest vote mounted its last pony, the Ron Paul campaign.
The policy set of any of these candidates has been of minimal importance to voters who've boiled down their beef with Washington to one idea: Attack.
Meanwhile Mitt the Whale swims serenely onward at 25%, month after month, dipping occasionally to feed on these pilot fish. But the whale should be worried. These Republican protest fish have sharp teeth. Unless fed something soon, they may tear the Romney campaign to pieces. And there are a lot of them.
Political commentary sometimes refers to one of these second-tier candidates as appealing to "the tea party vote." This is intended as condescension—you know, it's those people who gave the Republicans Christine O'Donnell, Joe Miller and Sharron Angle in 2010. Ah, yes, 2010.
In the no-longer-mentioned November 2010 elections, the often disrespected "tea party vote" handed the Republican Party a victory of historic magnitude and depth. Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives but also won state offices on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.
The 2010 election was the result of a coalition that extends well past the formal tea parties. It combines Republicans of all stripes, libertarians, independents and worried centrist Democrats. They all are "fiscally conservative" and socially all over the map. The Republican nominee, however, will be produced by only one part of this fiscal-conservative coalition—the angriest, most politically committed Republicans and libertarians.
The Paul candidacy is of course doomed. But the Paul vote won't die. This vote has been building in the depths of the American political ocean since the spending spree of the second Bush term. These people see the upward spending trend in annual outlays and accumulated commitments not as a "problem," as the Beltway prefers, but as a threat to their well-being.
The Romney campaign may assume that this vote must land by default in their man's lap. By the relentless logic of the Romney camp, that's true. But if we've learned anything the past several months, it's that this is one of the most volatile Republican electorates in a long while.
Mr. Romney is running a campaign strategy indeed targeted at the broad fiscal conservative coalition that emerged in 2010: Hold the worried independents and centrist Democrats by avoiding what in his Dec. 24 Wall Street Journal Weekend Interview he called "incendiary things." OK, we get that. Independent voters are easily flustered, dependent as they are on the policies of strangers.
But if the former Massachusetts governor doesn't reach out pretty soon to the Paul-Perry-Bachmann Republican protest voters, he may never get them. The longer he waits, the more pressure will build for a third-party challenge that will cost him the election. That it would be led by a Ron Paul or Donald Trump is irrelevant to why these people would vote third party—or stay home.
Mr. Romney is going to have to take a risk with some piece of his locked-down strategy—the RomneyCare denial, the "middle-class" ceiling on his tax cut, naming a running mate who could have beaten him in the primaries.
Mr. Romney needs to give these Republicans a reason to come in his direction, before they walk away from him forever.
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