Does the Romney-Ron Paul Pact Make Paul a Sellout?

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The proudly incorruptible libertarian's all-but-open collusion with Mitt Romney, the establishment candidate, should infuriate his fans. And yet somehow it doesn't.

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Ron Paul is helping Mitt Romney. It's been obvious for months. You'd think Paul's followers would be outraged by this -- but they're not.

The Paul-Romney alliance means the race's most ideologically pure fiscal conservative has effectively sold out to the least conservative, least consistent, most establishmentarian candidate in the field. Romney favors the basic concept of progressive taxation and a government's right to compel citizens to purchase health insurance. It's unthinkable that he would, if elected, end the Federal Reserve. Alone among the candidates, he insists that there be no cuts to any military spending. All these stances are anathema to Paul's staunchly absolutist world view.

On paper, you would think Romney would be the chief subject of attacks from the Paul campaign, which has, in its television ads, been more unapologetically negative than any other. Paul has run one ad that slams all three of his rivals -- Newt Gingrich ("serial hypocrite"), Rick Santorum ("counterfeit conservative") and Romney ("flip-flopper). But that's nothing compared to the attacks he's unleashed pointed solely at Santorum ("fake," "a record of betrayal") and Gingrich ("selling access").

Romney is the major only candidate Paul hasn't singled out in an ad. And Paul's ads against his competitors have been far more brutal than anything Romney or his super PAC have put on the airwaves. In crucial stages of the GOP primary thus far, he's put hundreds of thousands of dollars behind these ads, helping squelch Santorum and Gingrich when they posed the most danger to Romney's candidacy.

Helping Romney in his quest to make potential alternative candidates unpalatable to the conservative base is a major assist. But it's far from the only way Paul has boosted the man who ought to be his biggest nemesis -- the embodiment of the sort of soft, big-government Republicanism Paul says it's his mission to eliminate.

First there are the sins of omission -- the opportunities to criticize Romney that Paul has passed up. The liberal group ThinkProgress studied the record and found that Paul attacked other candidates 39 times in the 20 debates to date, but didn't go after Romney a single time. Even when moderators have tried to draw him into a potentially illuminating contrast with Romney, Paul has demurred. (David Gregory to Paul, Jan. 8: "Do you believe Governor Romney now when he says he is a man of constancy and that he'll stand up for conservative principles?" Paul: "You know, I think this whole discussion so far has been very superficial, and I think the question in the way that you ask it is superficial.") In some cases, Paul has even defended Romney, as in this totally unprompted swipe at Rick Perry on Sept. 7: "You know, the governor of Texas criticized the governor of Massachusetts for Romneycare, but he wrote a really fancy letter supporting Hillarycare." His attacks on all the other candidates have been gleefully vicious. But he's handled Romney with kid gloves.

That's not the only example of Paul coming proactively to Romney's aid. When Romney was under fire for his out-of-context "I like being able to fire people" sound bite in January, a "Ron Paul Campaign Statement on Republicans Attacking Capitalism" landed in reporters' inboxes. "Two important issues that should unite Republicans are a belief in free markets and an understanding that the media often use 'gotcha' tactics to discredit us," Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton wrote in the statement. "Rather than run against Governor Romney on the issues of the day Santorum, Huntsman, and Gingrich have chosen to play along with the media elites and exploit a quote taken horribly out of context. They are also using the language of the liberal left to attack private equity and condemn capitalism in a desperate and, frankly, unsavory attempt to tear down another Republican with tactics akin to those of MoveOn.org." Romney couldn't have said it better himself.

Paul's campaign has acknowledged a policy of not going after Romney and sought to frame it as a matter of strategy. "We're not fishing from the same pond," Benton told reporters in the post-debate spin room in New Hampshire, meaning there's no overlap between potential Paul voters -- young, rebellious, idealistic -- and potential Romney voters -- older, status-quo-oriented party regulars. But that's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the two candidates most singly focused on fiscal issues and the economy, Romney and Paul could be competing for the same universe of voters not interested primarily in social issues. On the campaign trail, I have met more than one voter who claimed to be deciding between the two, like the Nevada man I encountered at a Paul rally who told me while he agreed with Paul's ideas, he planned to vote for Romney because he thought Romney could win. The upcoming Virginia primary, in which only Paul and Romney managed to get on the ballot, could test the Paul camp's theory that he wins the anti-Romney vote once Santorum and Gingrich are eliminated as choices.

In addition to Paul's policy of nonaggression against Romney, there are the instances of operational collusion between the two camps. Throughout the primaries, they have coordinated such details as the timing of their election-night speeches, the Washington Post reported -- a routine courtesy, perhaps, but one not always extended to Romney by the other campaigns.

Other instances have been more consequential. When Romney decided he didn't want to participate in a pre-Super Tuesday debate scheduled for March 1, his camp reached agreement with Paul's behind the scenes that both candidates would decline the invitation, as Benton has acknowledged. The debate was quickly canceled for lack of participation.

Had Paul not backed Romney up on this, the debate might well have still been held, either showcasing Romney's avoidance or pressuring him into recommitting. And while Romney had an obvious interest in killing the debate, to deny his unpredictable rivals national screen time and an opportunity to score points on him, Paul did not. Paul's ostensible mission, short of winning the nomination, is to spread the gospel of liberty and convert Americans to his philosophy. The opportunity to reach a national audience through televised debates is practically the reason he's running. In 2008, he had to fight to get into the primary debates. That he would pass up an invitation this year flies in the face of his candidacy's whole rationale.

Another less acknowledged, but possibly more significant, boost to Romney was Paul's decision not to participate in this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. Paul had won the conference's straw poll for three years straight, causing frustration among the organizers, who saw his mass ticket buys and buses of college students as distorting the would-be barometer of activist sentiment. But this year, Paul was the only presidential candidate not to attend and speak at the conference, and he made no attempt to organize for the straw poll. Who won in Paul's absence? Mitt Romney, in a crucially timed lift to his candidacy that helped dampen Santorum's momentum.

Both the candidates have denied that there's any kind of deal. "There's no truth" to the idea, Paul told CNN Tuesday. "No, of course not. No one is going to tell Ron Paul what to say," Romney said in a Fox Business interview the same day. But the evidence is clear that a de facto alliance exists -- and that it chiefly benefits Romney.

The biggest potential benefit to Romney, of course, lies ahead. In 2008, after he dropped out of the race, Paul never endorsed the GOP nominee, John McCain, who had open disdain for him and his followers. Romney clearly hopes to do a better job of courting Paul and his legions of supporters for the general election this time around.

A source familiar with the Paul camp's thinking portrayed the "cahoots" idea as a conspiracy theory seized upon by a desperate Santorum as his candidacy struggles. The source acknowledged that the Paul camp had made a "strategic decision" not to target Romney-leaning voters, a calculation he said was supported by the campaign's internal polling.

"We have been very forthright about the fact that Ron and Mitt Romney like each other as people," as do their wives, the source said, whereas Santorum has called Paul "disgusting" and Gingrich has called him "stunningly dangerous."

"Ron has major policy disagreements with Mitt Romney, which he has pointed out a bunch of times and run millions of dollars of ads referring to Romney as a flip-flopper," the source added. "What we haven't done, which we have done with the other candidates, is run direct ads hammering Mitt Romney where he's singled out. And that's in large part because we don't really compete with Romney for votes."

Given all that Romney has gotten out of their collaboration, speculation has focused on what Paul's getting out of his work on Romney's behalf. Some theorize that Paul has been promised a speaking slot or some other accommodation at the GOP convention. Others focus on the political future of his son, Sen. Rand Paul: running mate? Cabinet secretary? Presidential candidate in 2016? Still others have spun nefarious plots involving relationships between Paul advisers and the Romney camp.

But Paul has a simple explanation for his behavior, and it should appall his ideological followers just as much as a craven political quid pro quo would: The two men are friends. Unlike the rest of the candidates, by Paul's account, Romney hasn't treated Paul like a radioactive nutball; he's greeted him with respect, as equals, and their families have become close. "I talk to Romney more than the rest on a friendly basis," Paul told the New York Times. "He's made a bigger attempt to do it. The others are sort of just real flat."

What Paul, who has spent his decades in the House as a political outcast, is essentially saying is this: After all his humiliating years in the political wilderness, someone important has finally been nice to him. Alone among the establishmentarians, Romney has allowed Paul into the sacred clubhouse of legitimacy. For that, Paul is apparently willing to swallow their disagreements and play lapdog. He's been co-opted -- revealed to be less than the loyal libertarian soldier his fans take him for.

Naturally, instead of being outraged by this turn of events, Paul's devoted following is deep in denial. "Ron Paul and his campaign people are geniuses," one fan wrote on a RonPaulForums.com message board recently. "For months -- nay, years -- we've been hearing, 'Who is the Alternative to Romney?' THAT is why Ron Paul is not attacking Romney. He's using the media's priming against the media." (No, this doesn't make sense.) Another poster volunteered that "such an 'alliance' even if it didn't violate so many of Pauls principals (which it does) still wouldn't be needed."

The Paul army's calculation is simple: Ron Paul is perfect; therefore, anything Ron Paul does must be correct and unimpeachable. But the evidence is staring them in the face. Their man has sold out.

Image credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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