Editor's note: Conor Friedersdorf is editor of The Best of Journalism, a curated digest of the best non-fiction writing on the Web.
(CNN) -- Approach a Tea Party supporter, compliment his "Don't Tread On Me" T- shirt, and ask what motivates his activism. The federal government is always growing, he might reply, as is the financial burden it imposes. We're borrowing more money every year, mortgaging our children's future, and little by little, we're ceding our very liberty.
If the Tea Party wants to win enough converts to effectively govern, it must persuade more voters that this kind of rhetoric is offered in earnest.
Skeptics of the Tea Party note that the right never organized in opposition to the profligate spending of the Bush administration. They wonder why a movement so vocal about liberty focuses exclusively on the economic variety, and suspect that if the GOP is returned to power, government won't grow smaller or less intrusive so much as serve different masters.
Come 2012, however, there is one Republican who'll be uniquely positioned to win over these skeptics: former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a long-shot candidate whose success in the presidential primary would signal, as nothing else could, that the principles espoused by the Tea Party really changed the GOP.
A self-made entrepreneur who founded one of the most successful construction businesses in his state, Johnson has vetoed more legislation than any other governor in America, successfully reduced spending during his tenure, and handily won re-election in a state where a majority of registered voters were Democrats.
On fiscal matters, he is as uncompromising as any Republican -- certainly more so than Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin, whose brief tenure as governor was a big government bonanza by comparison. Unlike former Gov. Palin, he is neither disliked nor mistrusted by independents, being relatively unknown.
Most importantly, no one would be better at persuading disaffected Republicans, jaded libertarians, and right-leaning independents that when he talks about a principled commitment to American liberty, he really means it. I include myself in that group -- though I fear the small-government right is again setting itself up to be co-opted by the GOP establishment. I'd support Gary Johnson in both a primary and general election, despite my doubts about the Tea Party.
Asked why he can be trusted to steward taxpayer dollars better than the typical Republican, Johnson can point to his isolationism and distaste for spending money on foreign wars of choice. Questioned about whether economic liberty is the only kind that interests him, he can reply that he's long favored ending the war on drugs, a policy that costs billions, infringes on states rights, erodes protections embedded in the Constitution, and is nevertheless supported by most GOP officials.
These issues aren't unalloyed advantages for Gary Johnson the politician.
Skepticism of the Tea Party owes partly to the fact that lots of movement conservatives are indeed inconsistent in their small government advocacy: Even as opposition to President Obama unites the right, enduring disagreements over Iraq, the Patriot Act, the war on drugs, and the appropriate scope of presidential power divide it.
Successful Republican politicians mostly fudge these issues: They understand that their base likes the rhetoric of limited government, but favors marijuana prohibition, the home mortgage deduction, and even warrantless wiretapping, so long as the specter of terrorism is raised.
The intellectual incoherence is as bad on the other side of the ideological spectrum, where many liberals who rightly lamented George W. Bush's violations of due process say nothing when they're committed by President Obama. Though unprincipled, inconsistency in the defense of liberty is a bipartisan vice and an exceptionally good political strategy. During American presidential contests, for example, it has prevailed every single time.
There is nevertheless a pragmatic case for the Tea Party supporting Gary Johnson. This movement gets its strength and energy from the notion that backing establishment politicians merely because they're electable is an exercise in futility -- RINOs (Republican in Name Only) must be vanquished, and at long last principles must come first!
However tempting it may be to run a "safe" candidate against a weak incumbent president, the strategy is untenable in the upcoming election. The base is ready to bolt for a third party if it thinks the GOP is offering more of the same.
If forced by your own rhetoric to nominate someone who is uncompromising on fiscal matters, why not pick the person who sends the clearest signal to undecided voters that the GOP isn't just talking about small government in a ploy to get elected, outlaw stem cell research and invade Iran?
Though President Obama betrayed his campaign rhetoric once inside the White House, his campaign proved that it is possible for a victorious candidate to advocate for civil liberties and challenge excesses in the war on terror.
In a general election, Johnson could also compete for some disaffected Obama supporters from the left. If you're an ACLU liberal, how do you enthusiastically turn out for the guy who is defending executive assassinations and prolonging Don't Ask Don't Tell, when his opponent wants to roll back executive power, the war on drugs, and the Pentagon's bloated budget?
In conservative circles, it is said that the modern Republican coalition is a stool supported by three legs: small government conservatism, social conservatism, and foreign policy conservatism. Over the years, however, the GOP establishment has sacrificed small government principles and fiscal prudence, whether to fight the Cold War, the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, or George W. Bush's quixotic, expensive war on the notion that Republicans aren't compassionate.
If it stands for anything, the Tea Party is a promise that small government conservatism is finally going to be the priority. But does it stand for anything? Even Tea Partiers wonder whether returning the GOP to power is going to result in more of the same.
President Obama is going to be especially tough to beat in 2012 if potential Republican voters are still wrestling with that question. Should Gary Johnson win the GOP nomination, they'll at least know the answer -- that this time, things really are different.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Conor Friedersdorf.