IT’S RARE to see a bromance flourish in the hot glare of the GOP primary spotlight, but Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have something positively special going on. It isn’t based on shared policy views: Mitt wants to bolster the armed forces; Ron wants to bring them home. Mitt’s OK with (state) government health care; Ron doesn’t want government doing much of anything. Of all the candidates, Romney is furthest to the left - and yet appears to enjoy the tacit support of a conservative so strict that he once voted to deny Mother Teresa a congressional Gold Medal because the Constitution doesn’t explicitly authorize the expense.
Hard as it may be to believe, it’s even harder to deny. A study this week by the liberal group ThinkProgress found that Paul has not attacked Romney in any of the 20 Republican debates, although he hasn’t hesitated to go after other candidates. In Michigan, where Paul wasn’t competitive, he nevertheless ran ads pounding Romney’s chief rival, Rick Santorum. The political world is dying to know: What’s going on?
The line being peddled by the campaigns is that a mutual affection developed during the 2008 race, when both men were running for president. Their wives are said to like each other, too. And given that the alternatives are Santorum and Newt Gingrich . . . well, enough said. But politics is politics, and raw self-interest lies at the heart of every decision. Trying to discern what each gains from the alliance has become a Washington parlor game.
For Romney, the answer isn’t hard to fathom. Despite his advantages in money and organization, he’s a surprisingly weak front-runner, vulnerable to a conservative challenger. Paul’s views are far enough outside the mainstream that he won’t provide that challenge. But he commands an army of loyalists and has enough money himself to damage any of his opponents. An armistice lets Romney preserve resources, popularity, and viability, because it leaves one less opponent to attack, and to attack him.
What Paul gets out of the arrangement is much harder to fathom. One popular theory is that he wants his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, to become Romney’s vice president. But that’s nuts - Rand Paul’s first turn on the national stage came when he criticized the Civil Rights Act. Romney is too shrewd and risk-averse to court that kind of trouble. Besides, selecting Rand Paul, who has served all of 18 months in the Senate, would undermine the force of his critique of Obama, whom he is trying to cast as a nice guy in over his head.
Another suspicion among Republicans on Capitol Hill is that Ron Paul is angling to become chairman of the Federal Reserve. But the idea that President Romney would stake the economy (to say nothing of his own political career) on a guy who’s written a bestseller called “End the Fed’’ is even crazier than the speculation about his son. A more plausible theory is that Paul has extracted some sort of concession by which Romney would agree to support an audit of the Fed, and grant Paul a choice speaking slot at the Republican convention.
But if that’s what Paul has settled for, he’s a cheap date. The financial reform legislation Obama signed in 2010 already produced an audit of the Fed’s emergency lending programs. And Paul could hardly be denied a speech, anyway.
My own theory is that Paul may have convinced Romney to establish another Gold Commission like the one Ronald Reagan set up in 1982 to examine whether the United States should return to a gold standard - an idea Paul has espoused for decades.
Two years ago, he told me that Reagan had been won over to the cause. “A country doesn’t remain great if it gets off the gold standard,’’ Paul said Reagan told him. But the White House blocked him. A presidential commission devoted to his animating issue might be a fair trade.
Whatever the deal, if there is one, Romney had better be sure that he lives up to his end. Paul is helping Romney secure the nomination, but he could just as easily deny him the presidency should he feel betrayed. Paul has already announced his retirement from Congress - and has run for president as a third-party candidate once before.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @Joshuagreen.