Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).
(CNN) -- To get a sense of how Ron Paul is tying the GOP establishment in knots, look no further than Sen. Jim DeMint, the powerful Republican from the site of the next major primary, South Carolina.
Until November 2010, DeMint had a clear claim on being the most influential, populist-flavored fiscal conservative in the Senate. Then a wave of Tea Party freshmen helped bring a Republican majority to the House of Representative and a new breed of politician to the Senate -- one best exemplified by Kentucky's Rand Paul, whose post-campaign memoir was titled The Tea Party Goes to Washington.
DeMint, a strong social conservative, greeted it with both a hearty welcome ("[P]ut on your boxing gloves. The fight begins today") and an attempt at line-drawing. "You can't be a fiscal conservative," he claimed just after the election, "and not be a social conservative."
DeMint was totally wrong about that -- polling data has indicated that a majority of Americans feel comfortable with the label of "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" -- but that's not what's interesting here. What's interesting is that after pooh-poohing the existence of a species that closely resembles the politically homeless tribe known as libertarians, DeMint, in the wake of Rep. Ron Paul's solid second-place showing so far in the GOP presidential primary season, is using the L-word as a compliment.
"One of the things that's hurt the so-called conservative alternative is saying negative things about Ron Paul," DeMint told radio host Laura Ingraham this week. "I'd like to see a Republican Party that embraces a lot of the libertarian ideas."
This is a departure. In both 2000 and 2008, the top two GOP delegate-winners ran on explicitly anti-libertarian platforms. As John McCain wrote in his campaign memoir "Worth the Fighting For," "I welcomed a greater, if still limited, role for government in national problems, anathema to the 'leave us alone' libertarian philosophy that dominated Republican debates in the 1990s. So did George W. Bush, I must add, who challenged libertarian orthodoxy with his appeal for a 'compassionate conservatism.'"
The mix of compassionate conservatism, with its emphasis on domestic spending initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D, and neo-conservatism, with its emphasis on interventionist foreign policy, produced results that were both predictable and predictably repellent to libertarians: A 60% increase in federal nondefense spending under Bush, and a federal government that recognized no corner of the globe or hospital room as off-limits to American police power.
It's no wonder, then, that libertarians, like the rest of America, have been fleeing the Republican Party in droves. From 1972 to1988, libertarians voted Republican for president 69 percent of the time; since then the percentage has dropped to 46. Meanwhile the country, and especially younger people, have been turning more culturally libertarian on issues like gay marriage and marijuana prohibition, at a time when the mainstream GOP keeps fighting those lost causes.
Mitt Romney is on the glide path to the Republican nomination. But it is not escaping GOP notice that Romney's vote total in Iowa was the same as it was in 2008, and just 5 percentage points higher in New Hampshire than four years previous. Turnout among self-identified Republicans decreased in both states, even after more than three years of Barack Obama's misgovernance.
Ron Paul, on the other hand, more than doubled his vote total in Iowa, and tripled it in New Hampshire, largely by attracting nearly half of all independents and young voters. Paul has gotten twice as many votes as Newt Gingrich so far. In the Granite State, he received more votes than Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry combined.
And unlike Santorum and Gingrich (his two main competitors for the non-Romney slot at this point), Paul has a nationwide campaign, the ability to raise money at the drop of a hat, and the clear intention to compete all the way to the Republican National Convention. He is the clear front-runner in the race for second place.
What are poor Republicans to do? Many of them hate Ron Paul's ideas on foreign policy, roll their eyes at his talk about the Federal Reserve, deem him to be several fries short of a Happy Meal, and -- correctly -- see his constitutional radicalism as a threat to both the philosophies behind compassionate conservatism and neo-conservatism, and to the practical gravy train of bipartisan big government. But he's the only Republican game in town when it comes to drawing in the independents and young voters they need.
DeMint, for one, is making a partial accommodation, by saying nice things about Paul and refusing to endorse any candidate (though his staff is another story).
"I don't agree with Ron Paul on foreign policy and his disengagement around the world, but we're going to end up where he is because we don't have any money," DeMint told The Daily Caller. "So the Republican Party needs to become the big tent of Americans who really want freedom, prosperity, opportunity and that's just synonymous with a more limited government."
But if the campaign comes down to a two-man race, you can expect some serious evictions from the GOP's shrinking tent. Buy popcorn.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.