The uber-radical is surging in the polls, but when it comes to show time, America would never put him in office.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- President Barack Obama has a new best friend. His name is Ron Paul.
The Texas congressman has astounded pundits with a trait that has eluded him during his many presidential campaigns: electability. A new poll shows Paul leading the pack in Iowa, with a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney among voters under 45.
Paul is doing so well that he may pull off the most considerable fete of his career: engineering the reelection of Barack Obama. As a matter of fact, if the Democrats play their cards right, they can exploit the Ron Paul Factor into a sweeping victory in congressional and state contests as well. All they have to do is be the anti-Paul. He is that toxic.
The reason is that Ron Paul is not a conservative. He is a far-right radical, with extreme views on the economy and the role of government that are far outside the American mainstream. At the same time, he has isolationist views on foreign policy that appeal to some on the left who wouldn't care for the rest of his platform -- if they bothered to find out what it is.
More than any other candidate for president, he presents in vivid fashion the moral choice facing voters in 2012. It's a question of fundamental values, one that will decide the role of government in society for years to come.
Despite the faux-populist appeal and foreign policy views that have suckered some progressives -- do they know that Paul is firmly anti-abortion and feels that life starts at conception? -- he is the corporate-Wall-Street-far-right enemy of everything Obama stands for. Paul embodies the vision of government as evil, taxation as looting, and free-market capitalism as the moral ideal of the nation, in contrast to the traditional liberal view of regulations as helpful, taxation as a method of achieving income equality, and capitalism as requiring control.
Paul has developed an almost cult-like following because he is different from the rest of the pack. He is a rarity: an intellectual in a presidential race dominated by buffoons and cynical know-nothings like the former candidates Cain and Trump. He's a man of consistency amid flip-floppers. He's not especially telegenic, but it doesn't matter. He combines the appealing folksiness of Ronald Reagan with the low-key intellect, and popularity with the young, of Eugene McCarthy in 1968.
Beneath the humble, appealing veneer is a rigid ideologue. A President Paul would be Ebenezer Scrooge before he met the Ghost of Christmas Past, dismantling social programs that care for the poor. He'd put the New Deal on full-throttle reverse. His policies more clearly favor the 1% than any other GOP candidate for president. Only a couple of years ago he was considered such a lackey of corporate America that he was targeted by the anti-corporate activists, the Yes Men, in their 2009 film, The Yes Men Fix the World. Today, his anti-interventionist stance in foreign policy has substantial appeal to many on the left.
Free-market economics -- rigid adherence to laissez-faire capitalism, monetary policy based on the gold standard and immense cuts in government spending -- is the meat and potatoes of Paul's appeal. And that's where he is the Democrats' best friend. While not a Randian by any means -- he is too much of a maverick for that -- he was heavily influenced by the Ayn Rand ideology, which he followed closely when he was younger, and many of his views track hers and those of Austrian economists.
As Paul Krugman pointed out in the New York Times the other day, "Austrians see 'fiat money,' money that is just printed without being backed by gold, as the root of all economic evil, which means that they fiercely oppose the kind of monetary expansion Milton Friedman claimed could have prevented the Great Depression." If Paul's monetary policies ever took effect, he concluded, "Great Depression, here we come."
For the Republicans, Ron Paul means "defeat, here we come." There are two possible scenarios, neither of them boding well for the GOP:
* Paul wins. Hey, what does Paul Krugman know? He's only got the Nobel Prize. Besides, as Thomas Frank pointed out in his 2004 book, What's the Matter With Kansas, Americans are champions when it comes to voting against their own economic interests. Paul's election is the least likely scenario, but it seems more likely than ever, given his great polling numbers in Iowa.
Remember that at this time four years ago, it wasn't considered likely that Obama would win. If Paul does win, the moral choice would be so clear that I wouldn't be surprised if Obama wins sizable numbers of moderate Republicans. And the Jewish vote, which Republicans are courting so avidly? Forget about it. Obama is widely viewed as not being a friend of Israel, but Paul is perceived as being positively hostile. That won't do him much good with evangelical Christians either.
*Paul loses. This is, of course, more likely -- for now. Then what? Well, we're left with a whole lot of unhappy Ron Paul supporters. When asked about a possible third-party run, Paul has said he has no plans to do so -- but he hasn't closed the door to the idea entirely.. There's a good chance for a third-party run. The man obviously loves running, and the idea of a third-party candidacy is being pushed by some conservative commentators. That would, of course, draw votes away from whoever the Republicans elect, and pretty much guarantee Obama's reelection.
If he doesn't run as a third-party candidate, then we're left with a campaign between a radicalized Republican nominee and Obama. As for Paul, his supporters might be so teed off that they'll sit this one out. I'm not terribly sure that Paul would campaign too vigorously for a Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney candidacy, especially since their foreign policy views are so completely at odds with his own. He might come in with the kind of half-hearted endorsement that McCarthy eventually gave to Hubert Humphrey after failing to stand on the platform with him at the Democratic convention.
All in all, I'd say that Barack Obama breaks into one of his trademark smiles whenever he reads about Ron Paul surging ahead in the polls. He knows a friend when he sees one. And believe me, Barack Obama sure needs a friend.