The political world can't stop speculating on the next presidential race, but as it continues to daydream about 2012 it should include room for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R). Two surveys [here and here] this month of Republican voters sought to size up the potential GOP field but did not include Paul. This is a mistake because Dr. No's philosophy is closer to the Republican mainstream than it was last year when he ran for president.
When the primaries began, Paul's warnings against inflationary money printing, an unaccountable Federal Reserve and an ever-expanding federal government seemed overheated to most Republicans. That was before the Fed printed $1 trillion this spring; the Treasury bought major shares in banks and automakers that are lynchpins in their respective economic sectors, and Democrats announced big plans for health care.
Now you hear conservatives worried about the Fed and inflation, and railing against the government's quasi-control of private businesses.
Republicans in Congress have been voting more like Paul since the primaries ended, namely on economic policy. First, half of the House GOP and Paul voted against the final version of the bailout authorization last October. Then, every single representative voted with Paul against the stimulus bill this year. (However, Paul and the GOP are still at odds on staying in Iraq and Afghanistan much longer.)
Furthermore, more than 150 House Republicans are now co-sponsoring Paul's bill to audit the Federal Reserve.
Paul's primary election results were not great, but they weren't inconsequential either: he won 10 percent of the votes in Iowa and 8 percent in New Hampshire.
If the economy isn't growing well in three years and the government has maintained its expanded economic role, it should only reason to stand that Paul would do better among Republicans than he did in the primaries, at least based on how Republican politicians are voting and conservative leaders are speaking. (For what it's worth, Paul won third place in the Conservative Action Political Committee's 2009 straw poll of activists' choices for president.)
Paul is just as plausible a candidate to run for the Republican nomination as are Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, or Mike Huckabee who were tested in polls this month. Like them, Paul's run for the White House (twice) before and has said he isn't opposed to doing it again, albeit he said it's "unlikely." What's more likely, based on the circumstantial evidence, is that the Republican voters would receive Paul better than they did last year. Feature him in polls from now on and we can test this hypothesis.
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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine.