Monday, January 2, 2012

The Conservative Elite

Yesterday Mitt Romney compared Barack Obama to Kim Kardashian. He compared Obama’s failure to keep his campaign promises to Kim Kardashian’s failure to stay married until “death do us part.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t funny. It wasn’t even very telling. It wasn’t very high concept. If this is the best he can do, then Romney is not going to inspire or lead.

He might well be a capable manager, but if the country needs leadership, he will not be offering it.

Everyone knows by now that Romney is not very likeable. AlecMacGillis analyzes the problem in The New Republic. As he sees it, awkward and emotionless locutions are a Romney signature.

In his words: “There's a wonderful video clip floating around of Mitt Romney during his 1994 Senate campaign, going into a beleaguered greasy spoon restaurant in Waltham, Mass. He walks into the dim main room and exclaims, ‘My goodness! What's going on here today? Look at this! This is terrific!’ Except it wasn't terrific at all -- it was a smattering of older folks sitting bent over their cups of coffee, most seated all by themselves, barely reacting to Romney's noisy entrance.”

MacGillis sees the candidate doing the same thing today: “…Romney uses pretty much the same sort of exclamation now on entering his events. Arriving in the hotel foyer in Sioux City on New Year's Eve, it was: ‘What a sight this is! Oh, this is so much fun. My goodness, does this city always do this when we come to town?’ When he moved into the main event room, it was: ‘You're kind to be here tonight. On New Year's Eve. Gosh. Isn't that something?’ Granted, the events are considerably more crowded than that coffee shop, filled with people happier to see him, but somehow the echo of that Waltham declaration makes his giddy enthusiasm now seem something less than fully genuine.”

For now it doesn’t look like it will matter. Everyone believes that Romney is going to be the nominee. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are n0t real competition. Michelle Bachmann is not going to be the nominee. Rick Perry has the best resume, but the Republican Party will not nominate someone who is going to embarrass it.

Everyone is surprised that a candidate who is supported by no more than 25% of the Republican primary electorate should be a heavy favorite for the nomination.

Everyone knows why: conservatives have failed to unite around a candidate. Conservative heart throbs like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan did not make the race, so the anti-Romney vote has been split six ways to Sunday.

Some conservative pretenders are clearly just that: pretenders. Yet, the conservative candidates who might plausibly run for the presidency have been viciously attacked by the conservative intellectual elite. Witness Rick Perry and especially Newt Gingrich.

Yesterday, Ross Douthut wrote an intriguing column suggesting that Ron Paul is a symptom of the failure of the conservative elites.

By Douthut’s calculus, conservative Republicans are just as responsible as liberal Democrats for the current state of the federal government.

Douthut is writing in the New York Times, so he must remain fair and balanced, but he is correct to say that Republican voters are fed up with their own representatives for compromising too often with the Democrats.

They want to cast a vote for someone of principle, even if he is a libertarian, and even if he holds views that are often completely beyond the pale.

Conservative elites, with their lust to compromise, have given pragmatism a bad name.

Here, Douthut makes a good point, though Peggy Noonan made a similar point sixteen months ago.

Noonan argued that Republicans were constantly losing out in negotiations with Democrats. For being too eager to compromise, Republicans have been colluding with the big government crowd.

Today, elite conservative intellectuals are still giving pragmatism a bad name. Whether it’s the editors of the National Review and columnists like Ann Coulter most of them have rallied to Mitt Romney.

People who find the attitude of conservative intellectuals objectionable are going to  vote for Ron Paul and Rick Santorum.

They are saying that people whose business is to shape opinion have been trying to impose their views on others.

The conservative opinion is not universal. As influential a conservative as Rush Limbaugh has argued that the Republican party is making a mistake by not nominating a more solid conservative. And Thomas Sowell has voiced his support for the only viable conservative candidate alternative to Romney, Newt Gingrich.

Sowell’s analysis is sober and thoughtful:

“Barring some astonishing surprise, the contest for the Republican nomination for president boils down to Mitt Romney versus Newt Gingrich. It is doubtful whether either of them is anyone’s idea of an ideal candidate or a model of consistency.

“The fact that all of the short-lived frontrunners in the Republican field gained that position by presenting themselves as staunch conservatives suggests that Republican voters may have been trying to avoid having to accept Mitt Romney, whose record as governor of Massachusetts produced nothing that would be regarded as a serious conservative achievement.

“Romney’s talking point that he has been a successful businessman is no reason to put him into a political office, however much it may be a reason for him to become a successful businessman again.

“Perhaps the strongest reason for some voters to support Governor Romney is that the smart money says he is more ‘electable’ than the other candidates in general, and Newt Gingrich in particular. But there was a time when even some conservative smart-money types were saying that Ronald Reagan was too old to run for president, and that he should step aside for someone younger.”

Sowell concludes: “There are no guarantees, no matter whom the Republicans vote for in the primaries. Why not vote for the candidate who has shown the best track record of accomplishments, both in office and in the debates? That is Newt Gingrich. With all his shortcomings, his record shows that he knows how to get the job done in Washington.”

As you may know, I have made some of these arguments myself.  Thus, I find them to be especially cogent and persuasive.

Faced with a choice between the godfather of the Contract with America and the godfather of Romneycare, conservative intellectuals have rallied to Mitt Romney.

They have launched withering barrages of criticism against any candidate who would pretend to deny Romney the nomination.

When Newt Gingrich surged in the polls a few weeks ago the conservative elite reacted as though it had just seen the Antichrist.

Certainly, it damaged Gingrich. He did not help his cause by failing to respond, both to the critics and the other candidates.

I suspect that he, like Rick Perry before him, was so shocked by the bitterness and vituperation of the attacks that he froze... to the point that he could not mount an effective defense.

And Gingrich has not done himself any favors by throwing around proposals to arrest federal judges.

Still, Sowell is on point. If you ask yourself which candidate can make the best case for conservative principles and a conservative governing philosophy the answer is not Mitt Romney.

Shouldn’t elite conservative intellectuals think about who can promote a conservative agenda and conservative political leadership?

Or are they so desperate to win that they are happy to throw caution and principle over the side.

Moreover, which is better: supporting a candidate who has no experience in the federal government or one who, as Sowell says, “knows how to get the job done in Washington?”

One appreciates the feeling of ideological purity that leads people to vote for Ron Paul or Rick Santorum or Michelle Bachmann, but seriously, Republican voters need to get real. The choice is between Romney and Gingrich. Today, a vote for Paul or Santorum or Bachmann is really a vote for Romney.



Anonymous said...

Without a robust intellectual elite -- usually in the academy, but also in journalism and the media -- the conservatives start behind in the culture wars. That means that politicians who are not very good at shaping the zeitgeist must compromise to find conservative solutions that the broader public can accept. This is especially true where elite dominated discourse will always set the tone of the debates. Populist eruptions notwithstanding.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think that conservatives have a good intellectual elite, often in think tanks, but some in the media.

The difference is that the liberal elites dominate schools and universities, and thus, exercise considerable power over impressionable young people.

It's one thing to offer a cogent opinion. It's quite another to insist that you think the way your teacher thinks, lest you be downgraded and thus deprived of the opportunities that come with a better education.

David Foster said...

The other difference is that the "progressives" dominate the entertainment industries. And much political opinion is inculcated not by explicit political argument but rather by implicit drive-by tactics.

For example, in the movie Midnight in Paris (not bad overall), the girl's status-obsessed parents are Republicans.