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March 23, 2012 10:04 AM All Etch-a-Sketchers Now

By Ed Kilgore

A big part of the reason for the continuing focus—angry as it makes people like Brendan Nyhan—on the Etch-a-Sketch incident is that it provides the dying campaigns of Mitt Romney’s Republican opponents such a graphic metaphor for the criticism of Mitt they so signally failed to make effectively during the campaign when it mattered.

Today at FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver asks why that was the case—why no one seemed able to hit that big fat bullseye on Mitt Romney’s back that so many of us thought would be the political death of him? Nate explores a lot of theories, including inadequate voter information on Romney’s background and the army of Establishment figures willing to validate his ideological reliability. But the big factor seems to be that his rivals had their own problems:

Tim Pawlenty famously flubbed a line about Mr. Romney’s health care bill during an early debate. Newt Gingrich and his “super PAC” attacked Mr. Romney on his tenure at Bain Capital, but was much more reluctant to go after Mr. Romney’s inconsistencies — possibly because Mr. Gingrich has some apostasies of his own.
Ron Paul, who has perhaps the most consistent voting record of any presidential candidate in memory, has rarely gone after Mr. Romney directly. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. was more willing to, but he was a minor player during most of the campaign, and he lacked the budget to give the slick commercials he had produced on Mr. Romney’s shifts a wide airing on television.
Two rivals, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, were potentially in a stronger position to attack Mr. Romney on these grounds. But Mr. Romney’s campaign successfully executed the same bold strategy against them, shifting the conversation to highlight their own departures from conservatism.

I think what we’ve all been missing, however, is exactly why all these right-wing challengers to Romney—these teeth-grinding ideologues so full of contempt for RINOs and hatred for Democrats and the media—had their “own departures from conservatism.”

It may be as simple as this: even as the GOP has become significantly more conservative in just the last few years, the definition of “true conservative” has shifted just as far and as fast. And in the context of a competition in which no one other than Ron Paul—who for his own mysterious reasons has refused to criticize Romney—has a record that can pass muster under today’s definitions of conservative orthodoxy, Mitt’s relatively high levels of past heresy have simply gotten lost. To put it another way: the fact that Mitt was considered dangerously moderate, even liberal, by the standards of 2005 conservatism has been submerged in the general suspicion of a presidential field whose “true conservatism” in 2005 flunks 2012 standards of ideological consistency.

I’m sure this makes Newt Gingrich—once the walking, talking human definition of movement conservatism—completely crazy. His advocacy of perfectly orthodox conservative policy positions on the environment and health care are now being treated as precisely equivalent to Mitt’s heresies—even though Romney did a whole lot more than make a speech or two on subjects like climate change and mandate-based health insurance expansion—while obscuring Mitt’s vastly more controvesial advocacy of baby-killing, sodomite-coddling and “radical environmentalism.” And how about Rick Santorum? Always, always considered a conservative fanatic by Democrats, the kind of man liberals frightened their children with, he’s right down there in the compromising, RINO muck with Mitt because he voted for earmarks and endorsed Arlen Specter. Both he and Rick Perry—who began this campaign as the personification of vein-popping Tea Party rage—achieved negative moral equivalence with Romney for supporting famous Bush Administration policy initiatives (No Child Left Behind and Medicare Rx Drugs for Santorum, tolerance of the children of undocumented workers for Perry). But nowadays supporting the domestic policies of the man who was the universal champion of movement conservatives in 2000 is a terrible, black mark on your record, no different than Romney’s frankly liberal mid-2000s Republicanism.

So ironically, yesterday’s conservative firebrands look like Etch-a-Sketchers, too, when measured against the ever-more-conservative zeitgeist, and have lost the standing to go after yesterday’s moderate, Mitt Romney.

No wonder Santorum and Gingrich are brandishing a children’s toy, shaking it at voters in last-chance primaries and implicitly saying: You don’t understand! He’s as bad as Obama!

That’s probably true by very recent standards of conservatism. But by today’s more rigorous standards, everybody’s suspect, so why not go with the guy who seems to have the money and the general-election poll standings? It’s a question Mitt Romney’s rivals haven’t been able to answer. And that’s why he’s going to be the nominee.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • T2 on March 23, 2012 10:28 AM:

    "he’s going to be the nominee" - yeah, probably. But a nominee not even his own Party likes.

  • Steve on March 23, 2012 10:34 AM:

    This is true as far it goes, but I think the hard-core, tea-party wing of the Republican Party gets more attention that it deserves. I'd say the "silent majority" of Republican voters are not as fire-breathing as the tea party/deep South Republicans, and this is borne out by relative successes of Romney and Santorum/Gingrich. Whenever there's been a broad Republican electorate in a primary (Florida/Michigan/Ohio/Illinois), Romney has won, often easily. It's only been in the deep South (the core of hard-core conservatism) and the caucuses (which disproportionately draw the hard-core), where Santorum and/or Gingrich have found any success.

  • MBunge on March 23, 2012 10:39 AM:

    You're overthinking this.

    They didn't go harder after Romney because they didn't have the money or surrogates to do so. If you went through the negative ads and attack lines against The Mitt That Walks Like A Man offered up by Gingrich and Santorum, you'll find quite a few that are perfectly usable and effective. But if those ads and lines aren't repeated over and over and over again, it doesn't matter. The fundamental factor in the race has been Mitt outspending his opponents by 10 to 1.

    Mike

  • kevo on March 23, 2012 10:55 AM:

    Oh what a slippery slope one finds one's self on when hatred of otherness is the driving force behind one's already ill-defined ideological principles! -Kevo

  • zandru on March 23, 2012 11:15 AM:

    "even as the GOP has become significantly more conservative"

    WRONG! Maybe it was a previous Head Blogger who set the rule, but Today's GOP™ is not "conservative". They've gone well to the right of "conservative" and are more accurately termed "reactionary."

    Republicans want to repeal the entire 20th century, never mind the 21st. They've expressed many pre-19th century longings. This is not "conservative."

    Please, Mr. K - don't call them "conservative" anymore - use "reactionary." Let's insist upon accuracy, like The New NPR (I must contribute to them online today!)

  • JEA on March 23, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Ed:

    Since when does Ron ‘bring all our troops home and legalize drugs’ Paul have “a record that can pass muster under today’s definitions of conservative orthodoxy”?

  • anon-y-mouse on March 23, 2012 2:42 PM:

    He is there because of his money. Ro-money.

    Possibly the most insincere candidate in my lifetime.

    Disingenuous, devious, dishonest, deceitful, disassembling, dissimulating, deceptive.
    And that's just the d-words.

    Not to mention that Mitt Romney is blatantly untruthful about the nation's first African American president in almost all of his ads--blatantly so.

    ROMNEY doesn't stretch the truth--he actually lies.

    It is some kind of pre-existing condition he has.

  • biz5th on March 23, 2012 3:51 PM:

    Romney has taken a page from the Karl Rove playbook - project your flaws on to your opponent and attack those early and often.

    Expect to see Obama attacked as a flip-flopper for the individual mandate, and it would be pretty easy to carve up Obama's "evolution" on marriage equality if Romney wanted that wedge issue for the rust belt states.