Ron Paul is such a dilemma for many liberals because he doesn’t fit nicely into the current narrow political continuum. It is easy for liberals to ignore how bad Democrats are on many issues because Republicans are almost always equally as bad on those issues or marginally worse. This makes comparing a Democrat to a Republican from the standpoint of a liberal incredibly easy.
Paul, by being way better than Democrats on some issues and way worse on other issues, forces progressives to actually think. They are confronted with the question of what policies are more important to them. They are made to face the reality that on some issues the objective horribleness of the Democratic Party only masks the fact that the GOP position is marginally worse.
The way things normally work
Both parties tend to have surprisingly high amount of agreement on a lot of horrible stuff (foreign wars, drug war, FISA, etc…) and some great stuff (slavery is wrong, first amendment is good, etc…). The areas where the two parties do show some level of disagreement (such as abortion, gay rights, the level of taxes the rich should pay, level of public education spending, Medicare’s design, etc…) often follow on a rather narrow section of all theoretical political discourse.
It is not really that Democrats are good and Republicans are bad when it comes to policy. It is just easy for liberals to frame these things as being that “the Democrats as good and the Republicans as bad” because although the two parties do agree on a fair amount, when they differ the GOP is normally 20 percent worse on those issue than the Democrats. This dynamic makes it easy to hide that there is a whole spectrum of possible political debate being ignored. While the GOP being 20 percent worse on an issue may make the Democrats look good, it doesn’t change the fact even the Democrats’ position is terrible.
Why Ron Paul is different
I’ve created a visual aid. This is only two dimensional to show politics isn’t linear. This should probably be a 50 dimensional matrix, but that is impossible for people to see.
It is easy for liberals to depict Obama as good when compared to Mitt Romney. They tend to share a lot of the same terrible policy positions. The Obama campaign even takes pride in talking how much they are alike on the issue of health care. Where they don’t agree, Romney’s positions are almost always marginally worse than Obama’s. This does not actually make Obama good though, just marginally better than Romney. Of course that nuance is easily lost when faced with a binary choice in the heat of a campaign.
Ron Paul is different. When it comes to some issues like the drug war, military spending and NDAA, he is dramatically better than Obama. The fact that Paul is taking these stances lays bare just how awful some of Obama’s positions are. It forces Obama supporters to acknowledge the unpleasant truth that some of Obama’s actions are evil and repugnant. On the flip side, Paul is way worse than Obama when it comes to many other issues such as child labor laws, Medicare and pollution regulation.
In a Romney versus Obama fight liberals can quickly just point to ‘Obama is better’, even if it is only 15 percent better on just 20 percent of the issues.
To decide if Obama is better than Paul you must first face the reality that Obama is terrible on some issues and then weigh that against the issues he is as good on, or at least better than, Paul. It forces liberals to do the hard work, prioritize what they claim to believe in. In this situation, to defend Obama, you most defend many of his horrific positions as an acceptable sacrifice for a better all-around package.
This is why you get the ideological versus the tribalistic divide on the left over the reaction to Paul’s long-shot candidacy. Progressives who put policy first can appreciate Paul serving as a mirror that accentuates some of the terrible faults of the Democratic Party. The hope is that the shames of being exposed will eventually lead to reform. The Democratic loyalists dislike Paul for a similar reason. For them this mirror is simply making their Democratic leaders look bad.