No wonder the media are fascinated by Donald Trump's chances of becoming the Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
After all, when the Conservative Political Action Committee this year polled members on their choices for a 2012 candidate, the winner, by a seven-percentage-point margin, was Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). This is in sharp contrast to last year's poll, in which the winner by nine points was Ron Paul.
When a Rasmussen poll sized up potential general election candidates against President Barack Obama, the most competitive Republican hopeful turned out to be Ron Paul.
When NPR ran a March Madness contest of Republican politicians—a competition that drew 963,719 participants—the winner was Ron Paul.
On the other hand, when participants at the Tea Party Patriots February convention in Phoenix, Arizona held their own poll of presidential prospects, the winner turned out to be…Ron Paul.
This is not to say Paul will get anywhere near the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Barring a pod-people takeover of the GOP, the mild-mannered representative from the Republican wing of the Republican Party will never get the institutional support to win primaries, should he even campaign.
While the allure of Trump may escape you, you can at least understand why news organizations looking to draw traffic would be interested in him. His fact-free fixation on President Obama's birth certificate, and his failure to locate his own, gives reporters the best of both worlds: a chance to revisit the interlocking weirdnesses of the birther story while mocking its premises. The Donald's lengthy history of business failures and personal disgraces provides easy context, and his humorlessness makes him a rewarding person to mock. His ornery comments on policy—demands to seize Libya's oil, for example, and red-faced machismo toward China—fit a ready stereotype of the right-wing ignoramus. And in a real gift for a slow news period, you can find nearly word-for-word precursors for Trump's anti-China tirades in comments he made about Japan nearly three decades ago. Nothing in Trump's caterwauling approaches serious engagement with the various crises facing the United States.
The Republican Party's disinterest in Paul is not so easy to explain. Even this far into the great credit unwind, Paul is considered such an odd duck within his own party that it was only with great reluctance—and after Paul's own craven support helped Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Alabama) to become chairman of the Committee on Financial Services—that the GOP allowed him to take over the Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Technology (admittedly a perfect spot for the unapologetic goldbug).
The Republicans' inability to deal with the Ron Paul phenomenon—a show that, like the recession and The Fantasticks, keeps playing long after the original audience was hoping it would close—indicates a party in menopause. Even against the seemingly lightweight competition of the Obama brain trust, the Republicans have no stomach for budget cutting. As Reason's Peter Suderman has been reporting, last week's apparently $38.5 billion in savings quickly dwindled to $14 billion and then down to a sub-billion figure. The president can give a rambling, orotund speech extolling a two-month-old budget proposal, and he still catches the Republicans flatfooted. They have no more interest in deficit reduction than he does.
The strange thing is that this is not a slow news period, and it's almost tempting to make the priggish complaint that we need to get serious about the issues. Sarah Palin left public life under very odd circumstances and is now best known for a daughter who dressed up like a monkey on Dancing With the Stars. Ron Paul is a sitting U.S. congressman whose son was recently elected to the Senate. Yet to go by the news mentions, Palin is the more serious Republican candidate. That's what the media will do when you give them no reason to take you seriously.
Again, this is not to say Paul has a chance of getting elected president in 2012. But the Republicans can't find any place for Paul's supposedly radical message for the same reason they can't manage to make even ten-figure spending cuts. They'll have nobody but themselves to blame when their 2012 rosters turn out to be laughingstocks, and not even the good kind of laughingstocks.
Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.