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Ron Paul, Tribune Of The Working Class?

Amid all the talk this week about whether Newt Gingrich et al will be able to bring down Mitt Romney with their attacks on Bain Capital, there's been little said about the man who's really on the move: Ron Paul. After finishing a strong second in New Hampshire -- tripling his share of the vote from four years ago -- Paul is the one getting a bounce in South Carolina. A PPP poll released today shows him jumping into third place in the state, up six points from last week to 15 percent.

Is it a coincidence that an attack on Romney and Bain that is meant to peel away economically aggrieved working-class voters should be redounding to Paul's benefit? Hardly, I say. It went little noted in the New Hampshire coverage that Paul cleaned up among the state's lower-income voters -- exit polls showed him tying Romney with 31 percent of the voters making $50,000 or less -- that is, Romney did far worse with these voters and Paul far better than their overall performance. Part of this, to be sure, has to do with Paul's popularity among students and other younger voters who aren't earning much yet. But that doesn't explain all of it. Paul also won working-class precincts in Manchester and, for whatever it's worth, the dive bar in Manchester whose WiFi I was using to send my primary night dispatch on Tuesday night was abuzz about Paul and no one else. That is, Paul dominated among the lower-earning voters that his ideological polar opposite, Rick Santorum, was hoping to do well with, a la Pat Buchanan '96.

What are we to make of this? There are plenty of theories for Paul's popularity lower down the ladder -- voting for Paul is a way to stick it to the man; Paul's anti-militarism holds particular appeal among the young and marginalized; his steadfastness holds more appeal for downscale voters than does a polished type like Romney. But must also be noted that it is, on another level, completely loopy that working-class voters are being drawn to a candidate who wants to pretty much eviscerate the safety net these voters benefit from. The liberal argument against Paul -- often made in response to liberals who find his anti-militarism fetching -- usually revolves around his appalling dalliance with racial and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But liberals ought to also be worrying about the sway that Paul's anti-government, fiscal-apocalypse talk seems to have among downscale voters who are hurt most by the ongoing spread of this sort of thinking into the Republican mainstream.

Occasionally, the disconnect between Paul's anti-government extremism and the real needs of his supporters becomes acutely clear, as happened at a town hall meeting of his that I attended in Meredith, N.H. last weekend. A man in the crowd asked: "Dr. Paul, my daughter's been ill for many years. Now she's on our insurance. But she'll graduate from college. Does she have to stand in line at a charity hospital to get help under your administration?"

Paul's answer, which I will quote in full: "Well, you'll probably be standing in line under Obamacare, let me tell you [applause]... [Health care] has been messed up, and that's why I've reserved final decision on the reform of medical care, elderly, children and social services, because it's messed up you can't say that those of us who want to reform it and get it back to sound footing are at fault. Because the money has been spent, the money isn't there for Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid has really no money in the bank. So I want to preserve at least what people have become dependent on. The whole thing is, the insurance business and the whole way we've given benefits to insurance over the years has encouraged problems with transferring policies. Under a good insurance system, a free market system, if a child or an 18 year-old or whatever buys an insurance policy and pays for it and it doesn't go with the job you don't have to transfer it, the contract should be there, they should never be able to cancel you. But then we got into this mess where it goes with the company, not with the individual, and if you have individual insurance you don't get the deduction but if you work for a big company you do, and if you transfer your job then you have to have a new insurance company. That's all artificial, the market has been messed up that way. Because it's more complex I want to work to that system but in the meantime the only way we can save the medical care system from total bankruptcy is by cutting spending elsewhere."

Got that? The answer left the man looking slightly befuddled, as it should have. Paul's right, the health insurance market is skewed, in part because of the way tax policy favors employer-provided insurance. But here's the thing: Obamacare is geared toward correcting this and moving us away from employer-based coverage, by reducing the tax benefit for high-priced employer-based plans and by creating new state-based exchanges where people without employer-based coverage will be able to buy their own coverage in a far more transparent and well-regulated market than exists today. Whereas in Paul's imagined "free market system," that man's daughter would indeed be in a terrible spot. What insurance company would sell an ailing teenager or young adult an insurance policy? They wouldn't, not without a requirement that insurers sell affordable policies to people with pre-existing conditions. And such a requirement works only if insurers are also covering young and healthy people, and that works only if there's a mechanism to get everyone into the insurance pool -- that is, something like the Obamacare individual insurance mandate that Paul's libertarian supporters find so utterly anathema. (Obamacare, of course, also explicitly allows that man's daughter to stay on her parents' plan until age 26 -- a godsend for families in just this circumstance.) It's upsetting enough to see Republicans like Romney and Newt Gingrich trashing a health care law that is modeled on reforms they once supported or signed; but it's even more upsetting to see such denigration as part of a pitch that is striking a particular chord with exactly the segment of voters that Obamacare will help the most.

Follow me on twitter @AlecMacGillis