Conservatives Ask, Is This All There Is?

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Mitt Romney — feel the excitementPhoto: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The nomination of Mitt Romney would put the Republican Party in the enviable position of running an economy-themed challenge against a sitting president during an economic crisis. It’s very hard to lose a campaign like that. And yet the taste of impending triumph is slightly bittersweet.

Former Bush staffer Jeffrey H. Anderson laments in the Weekly Standard, “So far in the presidential race, however, no candidate has eloquently, knowledgably, [sic] and thoroughly explained how Obamacare represents an attack on the core principles of limited government and liberty on which this nation was founded.” George Will’s Sunday column despairs of a potential Romney candidacy, “Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for THIS?”

The cause of their ennui is plain enough. Romney is running a purely results-based campaign against President Obama. His message is simply that things are bad and Obama hasn’t made them better. (Slogan: “Obama isn’t working.”) Romney’s theme elides why things are bad and says very little about what he intends to do to make them better, other than the fact that he, Mitt Romney, is the man to do it. He soft-peddles the hard-core anti-Keynesianism, Randian ideas that have animated the right. He can’t make a principled argument as to why the Affordable Care Act violated freedom because everybody knows he doesn’t believe it. Rather than defend the idea that rich people pay too much taxes and poor people pay too little, Romney is promising to help the middle class and ignore the rich.

His reasons for doing so are plain enough. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows the degree to which economic class remains a liability for the GOP. The public assessment of how Obama treats different classes is highly balanced — 28 percent say he favors the rich, 23 percent say he favors the middle class, 17 percent say he favors the poor, and 21 percent say he treats all groups equally. But as for Republicans in Congress, 69 percent say they favor the rich. The poll likewise shows now-familiar support for increased measures to stimulate the economy and for higher taxes on the rich.

Romney’s campaign treats conservatism as an obstacle to his reelection. He wants to get through the primary with his ideological flexibility intact, unencumbered by unpopular commitments. He offers the right the least amount of substantive commitment, packaged in the maximum emotional packaging.

Conservatives want to win above all, but it’s not the only thing they want. They want to win a philosophically oriented campaign. They want to believe that Americans are voting for their party because they agree with it, not just because the other party was in office during an economic free fall.

To be sure, they’ll take the win either way. The Bush administration (elected after losing the popular vote) showed that power is power, and the lack of a mandate won’t stop a president from using the full extent of the leverage available to him. But the Bush administration also showed conservatives the limits of what you can accomplish by winning an election without winning an argument. George W. Bush cast himself in 2000 as a compassionate conservative, promising to lift up the working poor.

The travails of the Obama administration convinced Republicans they might strive for something more — a thorough and open ideological repudiation of the last century of government. Romney is offering them a more likely win, but a less thrilling prize.