Pundits aren't sure what to make of Rep. Ron Paul's victory in the presidential straw poll held at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference . It was a plurality win, Paul garnering about 31% of a vote representing about 30% of the people attending the convention. It was also an unpopular win, received with boos when the results appeared on screen. But if Paul's victory was unpopular, how much less popular was Mitt Romney, who had a winning streak at these gatherings but only managed 22% of the vote?
While reporters are inclined to dismiss the results as irrelevant simply because Paul won, we should note an apparent variation on the "infiltration" strategy recommended for independent-minded people who are dissatisfied with either major party. If you don't like the direction your preferred party is taking, dissenters are told, you can change it by taking a more active role in primaries and conventions. Infiltrating the American Bipolarchy is a questionable strategy, based on an assumption that the parties' behavior is determined by the beliefs of leaders rather than by their institutional entanglements, e.g. dependence on fundraising, the responsibilities of governing, etc. What happened at CPAC, meanwhile, was an attempt to infiltrate the conservative movement itself. Many of Paul's supporters were collegians at odds with the silent majority over pet issues from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to ending the Fed. The elderly congressman has paradoxically become a guru of a new generation of self-styled conservatives who men to redefine the movement. This seems like something that can happen and inevitably will happen to some degree. Paul is the idol of the first post-Cold War generation of "conservatives," and it should not surprise us if before long "conservatism" becomes as different from what we now know by that name as the current movement differs from its pre-Cold War predecessors.
Whether Paul's followers can set the tone for future conservatism is still subject to debate. Dittoheads and their ilk will fight the Paulites every step of the way, or at least until this generation of talkers falls silent. While conservatism will inevitably change, it remains unclear whether a transformed conservatism can effectively change the direction of the political party that supposedly represents conservatives. It also remains unclear whether that's the Paulites' ultimate goal. They could very well emulate their master and seek shortcuts to power in the hope of using it for their own rather than partisan ends, but Paul's own powerlessness (as far as I know) in the congressional caucuses should make Paulite conservatives think twice about that route. In the short term, it seems unlikely that Paul would run for the Presidency again, but a coup like last weekend's win ought to reveal him as someone worth courting by those who do want the nomination. Will any "serious" GOP candidate actively seek Paul's blessing before the 2012 primaries? The answer should tell Paul's followers whether they have any future in the Republican party -- and it might make them think about whether theirs is really a "conservative" future.