Douthat’s excessive generosity

Updated
 
By some measures, Romney's the candidate who set his hair on fire.
By some measures, Romney's the candidate who set his hair on fire.
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Ross Douthat had an interesting New York Times item yesterday that’s generated some worthwhile discussion, so let’s take a closer look at his 2012 thesis.

As the conservative columnist sees it, the Republican primary voters may be mocked and maligned, but the derision is unfair – these GOP voters actually deserve a pat on the back, Douthat argues, for having “methodically sifted through the alternatives” to Mitt Romney, “discarding each in turn.”

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. The Republican electorate did care, and delivered him less than one vote for every $1,000 dollars his campaign spent. […]

A crazy party would have nominated the candidate who offered the most implausible policy pledges – Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, or Tim Pawlenty’s justly ridiculed promise of 5 percent growth a year, or Perry’s flat tax. The Republican electorate is poised to nominate a candidate whose domestic agenda is often light on details and imagination, but a long way from crazy.

At first blush, this may seem compelling. GOP primary voters flirted with nominating truly ridiculous candidates, who were an embarrassment to themselves and the party, the thesis goes, before grudgingly accepting their fate, settling on one of the Republican grown-ups. The nomination will apparently go to the guy who boasted, “I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support.”

It’s a perfectly nice argument, but I’m afraid Douthat is being far too generous with his praise.

If the Times columnist wants to argue that Romney isn’t as clownish a candidate as Michele Bachmann on Herman Cain, he’s on firm ground. But if he thinks that’s a sensible standard for national office, Douthat really needs to aim higher.

Indeed, I’d argue the more salient point here isn’t that a sensible party base settled on a reasonable candidate, but rather, than a formerly-reasonable candidate had to set his hair on fire to curry favor with an unhinged party base.

Douthat’s thesis makes it seem as if GOP voters put aside their reservations and went with a mainstream former governor of a “blue” state. That’s not quite right. Instead, the mainstream former governor of a “blue” state put aside his sensible persona to be more in line with what his party’s voters wanted him to be.

If the Romney running for president today bore any resemblance to Romney Version 1.0 or 2.0, Douthat’s argument would be far more compelling. But Romney has been forced to reject practically everything he said he believed prior to 2007.

His protestations notwithstanding, Romney effectively had to set his hair on fire.

After all, can anyone, anywhere, identify anything moderate about the Romney platform? Massive tax breaks for the wealthy, privatization of Medicare, slashing public investments, cutting off college aid, ignoring global warming, giving Wall Street free reign, “self-deportation,” restricting contraception access, war with Iran, more foreclosures, taking away health care from millions … this is a far-right Republican advocating the most right-wing agenda of any major-party candidate in a generation.

To hear Douthat tell it, the base wisely discarded the loonies, preferring the more stable and mature candidate. But has Douthat gotten a good look at Romney lately? I’ve looked for stability and maturity, and it appears to be hiding well.

Don’t applaud the Republican base for choosing Romney over the crazies; chide the Republican base for pushing Romney so far to the extreme to satisfy their far-right expectations.

Douthat's excessive generosity

Updated