Without the why, you are powerless. -- The Merovingian, The Matrix Reloaded
Political positions do not exist in a vacuum, independent of a larger context. An individual's political ideology cannot be determined simply by asking where that person stands on a series of hot-button issues and then throwing those positions onto an inflexible scorecard to determine if someone leans closer to "liberal" or "conservative." Instead, each individual point of data on a hypothetical test of ideology is, to at least some degree, predicted by an underlying narrative of values and beliefs.
Let's take, for the sake of example, the issue of pornography. In the 1980s, radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin led a movement against pornography on the grounds that it promoted the subjugation of women by men. Leaders of her ideological movement even formed alliances with the Christian right wing, who despised pornography not because they had any problem with men subjugating women—something that their ideology is in fact somewhat dependent on—but because of their repressive perspective toward anything having to do with human sexuality. Other feminist activists like Margaret Atwood criticized such alliances as ultimately counterproductive and dangerous: while there was a short-term opportunity for mutual gain on one area of interest, playing with that kind of fire could, in their view, provide undue empowerment to the enemies of the broader feminist movement. What mattered to them, after all, was not whether the Christian right had some superficial common ground on one issue: what mattered was why they held that perspective, and the ramifications of promoting people who despised just about everything else their movement stood for in the hopes of short-term gain on one issue.
So it is with the progressive movement's relationship to Congressman Ron Paul. Paul has policy prescriptions that seem on a superficial level to align closely with progressive values: most significantly, he opposes the continuing military presence in Afghanistan, and he opposes the current war on drugs—both of which are regarded by many progressives as total policy failures that should be ended as soon as possible. To "single-issue" progressives for whom either of these two issues, or perhaps the indefinite military detention provisions of the NDAA, are key concerns above all else, Paul's candidacy may initially prove attractive because he seems at first glance to be promoting issues of common cause. Paul-touting progressives are no doubt just as aware of Ron Paul's positions on women's rights, the Voting Rights Act, health care, and our country's entire macroeconomic structure; but they likely view Paul's candidacy as an opportunity not only to promote their own favorite issue, but also perhaps to stick a proverbial finger in the eye of President Obama, who they feel has not met their expectations.
The most obvious folly of progressives who promote Paul as a challenge to traditional orthodoxy lies in the simple fact that most of Paul's superficial positions, as described above, are absolute anathema to progressive policy prescriptions. But there is an even larger concern: supporting Paul for the one or two issues on which there is overlap assumes those particular positions arise out of a sense of progressivism. But they don't, any more than the Christian right's opposition to pornography could be considered part of Dworkin's feminist ideology. It is, rather, completely antithetical, even if the policy output happens to coincide despite a drastically different ideological input. In other words, it doesn't matter if the "what" happens to be the same if the "why" is radically different.
Progressives and Ron Paul may agree on how to handle Afghanistan. What they don't agree on is whether they care about other people dying. On the campaign trail, President Obama said that he's not opposed to all wars; he's opposed to dumb wars. That is an inherently progressive ideology. Intervention—peacekeeping at best, outright war at worst—is a strongly founded progressive value and always has been. For progressives, the question of whether or not to intervene hinges not on whether interventionism is inherently good or bad; rather, the question is whether on balance, the intervention will bring about a net positive result. Progressives now often oppose our intervention in Afghanistan because we are spending fortunes doing more harm than good for an objective that is poorly understood, even if it is obtainable. However, few sensible progressives would argue, for instance, that fighting the Nazis was a bad idea. Ron Paul, does not have anywhere close to that level of progressive humanist values: he simply does not want any of his time and resources spent on preventing others from dying, no matter whether that intervention seems to be a good idea from a progressive perspective or not. Consequently, he opposes our continued presence in Afghanistan, but also thinks that saving the Jews from extermination at the hands of the Nazis was none of our business.
Ron Paul's position on the drug war is exactly the same. Progressives oppose the drug war because it is drastically failing in its objective of keeping communities safer and keeping drugs off the street, and is instead spending large amounts of money to create a destructive shadow economy. Ron Paul happens to take the same position, in keeping with anti-interventionist ideology. Progressives don't oppose the drug war because it is inherently interventionist; they oppose it because it is a failed intervention that is doing more harm than good. But they would not say the same about other federal interventions like the Voting Rights Act, the EPA, Keynesian intervention in the economy, regulations on Wall Street, or a whole other host of interventionist measures progressives love but Ron Paul would oppose.
While it may be tempting for some to promote Ron Paul as a proxy for highlighting their dissatisfactions with the current administration, those who do must understand that in the longer term, they are promoting an underlying ideology that seeks to destroy everything they actually represent. Those who are looking for opportunities to push mainstream Democrats should look elsewhere. This one's not worth it.