How Romney Overcame His Sanity to Win

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at All-Star Building Material January 22, 2012.
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Has the Republican Party been going around the bend? Many of us think the answer is yes. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, as is his wont, sees the forces of sobriety and responsibility in firm command of the Grand Old Party:

A crazy party might have chosen Cain or Bachmann as its standard-bearer. The Republican electorate dismissed them long before the first ballots were even cast.

A crazy party wouldn’t have cared how Rick Perry debated so long as he promised to visit Texas justice on the Democratic Party.…

A crazy party would have nominated the candidate who offered the most implausible policy pledges…

given their options, Republican voters have acquitted themselves about as sensibly, responsibly and even patriotically as anyone could reasonably expect.

I certainly agree that Mitt Romney is not crazy, and that he is, indeed, intelligent and well-accomplished. For Douthat’s argument to work, though, you have to assume that Romney won because of those qualities. I see little evidence that this is the case.

For one thing, Romney is running essentially unopposed. He is running against uncharismatic has-beens lacking even such basic things as a pollster, campaign advisers, and a headquarters. Romney has routinely outspent his opposition four-to-one or more. In some cases, that is literally true that he is running unopposed: Romney has piled up quite a few delegates simply because his opponents have not even been able to make it onto the ballot everywhere. His opponents lacked the resources to highlight Romney’s scandalous history of sensible good governance.

Now, in Rick Perry, Romney had an opponent with real money. But Perry’s performance was so off-the-charts abysmal, so cringe-inducing that he shattered all previous standards. Gerald Ford in 1976 committed a massive, narrative-shaping gaffe by describing Soviet-dominated Poland as independent. Perry committed gaffes of that magnitude several times a day. It wasn’t even news. The man could not complete his sentences. Yes, Republicans cared that he was stupid, but to identify this as a badge of the party’s concern for competence is to set the bar below ground level.

What’s more, at every turn Romney has dispatched his challengers by outflanking them on the right. Perry’s wild threats and bluster had no observable impact on his polling. Romney disqualified him by painting him as soft on immigration (and Perry compounded the damage by describing conservatives as “heartless.”) Romney attacked Newt Gingrich as a scandal-plagued Washington insider, and Rick Santorum as a labor-friendly earmarker who voted to raise the debt ceiling.

I don’t see how you can read Romney’s triumphs so far as in any way signaling the GOP base’s desire for a responsible or non-crazy candidate. Romney but he has been forced to run as a man of the hard right, catering to wild paranoia, frantically assailing his opponents from the right, and tamping down suspicions of his suppressed reasonableness by overwhelming his J.V. opponents. If you want to measure the party's craziness, perhaps you need to look at measures other than those in which the "crazy" option can lose due to overwhelming financial and organizational disadvantages. Such as: a crazy party would widely believe both that Barack Obama is deeply influenced by his former pastor and that he's not a Christian. Check. A crazy party would have even its sane candidate running around accusing Obama explicitly of wanting to produce complete equality of income. Check.

Romney may be a sane man at heart, but he is surely poised to win despite this, not because of it.