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October 30, 2011 11:20 AM ‘The courage of his absence of convictions’

By Steve Benen

Perhaps the most talked-about column of the day is George Will’s piece on Mitt Romney, and for good reason. There’s quite a bit to chew on here.

Putting aside a couple of needlessly cheap shots at President Obama — the ATM joke was dumb six months ago, George, when Rush Limbaugh was the one pushing it — Will gives voice to conservatives who marvel at Romney’s vacuity, but aren’t sure what to do about it.

The driving anecdote is Romney’s inability to “enunciate a defensible, or even decipherable, ethanol policy.” As is generally the case, the former governor has taken a wide variety of positions, most of them contradictory, and none of them compelling from any perspective. Will argues, persuasively, that if Romney can’t even select a coherent position on ethanol — one of the easier issues to understand — no one can have any confidence in his ability to address far more complex challenges.

“A straddle is not a political philosophy,” Will explains, “it is what you do when you do not have one.” From there, Will notes Romney trying to take both sides — and oddly enough, neither side — of a few too many arguments, including the auto industry rescue and the ridiculous handling of Ohio’s ballot measures this week.

Romney, Will concludes, seems to “lack the courage of his absence of convictions.”

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable; he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate. Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.

Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from “data” (although there is precious little to support Romney’s idea that in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants is a powerful magnet for such immigrants) and who believes elections should be about (in Dukakis’s words) “competence,” not “ideology.” But what would President Romney competently do when not pondering ethanol subsidies that he forthrightly says should stop sometime before “forever”? Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?

I’d imagine the Romney campaign isn’t fond of Dukakis comparisons, though there are some parallels — socially-awkward Massachusetts governors, who aren’t especially well-liked, even by their own party.

But the larger point is more important. Will just doesn’t want the right to settle for the flip-flopping empty suit with an allergy to convictions and principles, simply because of some sense of “electability.”

And by all appearances, Will isn’t the only one. Indeed, it’s probably why Romney can have it all — the most money, the most endorsements, the most time on the campaign trail, the most name recognition — and still struggle to get above 23% in the polls. It’s very likely much of the party is asking the same question that anchored Will’s column: do conservative have to “settle … for this”?

Jon Chait had a good look at the causes for the right’s ennui.

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 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.

Romney offers the party no such opportunity, but he’s leading a cover-your-eyes awful field that lacks a more credible alternative.

Over the next two or three months, the question the GOP will have to ask itself is whether their Dukakis is good enough.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • jjm on October 30, 2011 11:30 AM:

    "Things are bad and Obama hasn't made things better."

    Tell that to a lot of people who got jobs under the stimulus, tell that to the now revived auto industry and its thousands of workers, tell that to people who can no longer be denied heath insurance due to pre-existing conditions... Tell that to the woman victimized by pay discrimination. Tell that to the Libyans, Tunisians, Egyptians with whom the Obama administration either did not interfere to block their democratic aspirations or actively helped overthrow their dictators.

    Tell that to our entire country, no longer under threat by Osama bin Laden.

    No 'things are bad' is precisely where the GOP wants this country be stuck.

  • c u n d gulag on October 30, 2011 11:34 AM:

    Governor, what do you really think?

    "Oh, for Pete's sake! I'm running for office here!!!"

    That one line, use properly, can help defeat him in a general election. It just show that "Fill-in the _____________" Mitt will say or do anything if he thinks it'll get him elected.

  • agnes bee on October 30, 2011 11:34 AM:

    "packaged in the maximum emotional packaging"

    Huh, never found Wasa crispbread that maximumly emotional.

  • walt on October 30, 2011 11:39 AM:

    Romney's own personal success story ought to give him sufficient cover with the base - he's rich, he's pro-"family values" in a vivid, ad-copy kind of way, and he likes to get things done. The problem is that conservatism is no longer skeptical about ideology. Indeed, it is an ideology based on its own conceit that it's always right about everything (and the other side is very wrong). So Romney, who made his many millions solving problems is oddly looked on as something less than pure.

    So, what's more incoherent? A philosophy that thinks there's a deep-seated principles in being a devotee ("we're always right!) or some technocratic pol who actually accomplished something? George Will's own pilgrimage to Full Yahoo is the real story here. What has conservatism accomplished besides providing ideological cover for anti-tax zealotry? By contrast, Romney's sin is the quintessentially American virtue of pragmatism.

  • Rick Massimo on October 30, 2011 11:43 AM:

    "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."

    They'd like an ideological victory, but it's not that important. They just want to win and continue to pillage the country for whatever it has left. They'll create the mandate on Fox after the election if they have to. Cf. the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush, who everyone "knew" would have to govern as a cautious centrist given his razor-thin margin of "victory."

  • zandru on October 30, 2011 11:45 AM:

    An Insult to Dukakis

    George Will believes that taking your "bearings from 'data'" is the same as just saying anything that's popular with the crowd du jour from day to day - even hour to hour. And data is scare-quoted, yet. Yeah, he fears the "reality-based community", too.

    For all the inklings of insight that this Will op-ed may have, George Will is still an idiot.

    "his eedbei" - another way of putting it.

  • agnes bee on October 30, 2011 11:46 AM:

    Recidivist revisionism rears its ugly head in the comments section of PoliAnimal, and its name is "walt."

  • DRF on October 30, 2011 11:56 AM:

    George Will represents the intellectual/ideological segment of the Republican Party--the true conservatives. However, Romney's support comes from the business community, Wall Street, large corporate interests and the political class like Mitch McConnell, all of whom are essentially uninterested in political and economic philosophy and simply want either a business-friendly, deregulated political environment, or political power, or both. You know that McConnell's interest is simply returning the Republican Party to power; he could care less about conservative principles. For this segment of the party, Romney is an ideal candidate--comfortable with the millionaire class, respectful of them and morally and politically flexible.

  • hells littlest angel on October 30, 2011 12:02 PM:

    I think that Romney, like Bush Junior before him, wants the title of President rather than the actual job of president.

  • Sean Scallon on October 30, 2011 12:05 PM:

    "do conservative have to “settle … for this”?"

    They'll have to if they can't unite on someone to oppose him.

  • Kathryn on October 30, 2011 12:06 PM:

    Romney will soothe the Tea Party and Will, if nominated, with an extreme rightie as VP. Hopefully, a Sarah Palin clone who will unsettle the middle. The middle is shakier this time though, so outcome is shakier too.

  • cld on October 30, 2011 12:11 PM:

    Slick Willard --he's on no side of any issue.

  • Jon Rockoford on October 30, 2011 12:18 PM:

    "...socially-awkward Massachusetts governors, who aren't especially well-liked, even by their own party."

    This is bullshit, and Bennen should know better.

    Dukakis was actually quite popular, and was up by double digits over old Bush in the summer of '88. He had enthusiastic crowds and oodles of volunteers and his competence message resonated very well with lots and lots of people. It's the pundits who found Dukakis's popularity incomprehensible since he was indeed socially-awkward and supposedly had no charisma and spread the idea that he was unpopular. But he was doing great both with his own party and the majority of voters, until the Bush campaign managed to portray him as a swarthy foreigner with un-American values, and the Massachusetts economy faltered, thereby creating doubts about his competence claims. Lack of popularity or inconsistency of conviction was not Dukakis's problem.

    Shame on you Bennen. Next thing you'll tell us Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet.

  • jjm on October 30, 2011 12:51 PM:

    One question: didn't the GDP just grow by 2.5%?

    Despite the GOP's best efforts to make things worse?

  • worcestergirl on October 30, 2011 1:34 PM:

    It would be fun to have a George Will day, sort of like talk-like-a-pirate-day, but with bogus quotes instead of arghhh's.

    Sort of like: George Will's Sunday "column" was rife with the usual sophomoric name-calling, so typical of Republican "intellectuals". In an unintended slight at Jimmy Carter, Will compared Romney to the "dreaded Dukakis", you know, that "Massachusetts Liberal" who actually read some real books, not real "books" like "Atlas Shrugged" or whatever drivel he soaks up from "Amity Schlaes".

    The "column" was not fact checked by the Washington Post "editors", who were too busy yucking it up over the front pager by "Lori Montgomery" on how social security is "broke", in an "analysis" that could have come out of the Pete Peterson "Foundation" or other right-wing "think tank".

    Arrrrgghhhh.

  • CDW on October 30, 2011 1:59 PM:

    "[Conservatives] want to win a philosophically oriented campaign."

    And since they can't manage that, they do everything in their power to limit the people who can vote to people who share their "philosophy".

  • Rick B on October 30, 2011 2:03 PM:

    Personally I think that Romney's flip-flopping is a marketing ploy. He is positioning himself as the otherwise blank roadside sign that says

    This Space for Rent.
    Call xxx-xxx-xxxx and make your bid to place YOUR message here!

  • Tanya on October 30, 2011 2:21 PM:

    Anybody who been really follow the political specter for the last 2 1/2 yrs. knows conservative main objectives was & is to keep this economy in decline & keep the people frustrate, discontent, confuse, disillusioned (for what I see up to today have succeed).. Fat cats bought out politicians, media, & build their own grass root organization with big money. The 2010 midterm election prove that.. Will, made have a surreal moment but that doesn't mean a thing to their party.

    The questions comes down to: 1) How far down the rabbit hole REAL AMERICA fell?

    As far as, Mitt Romney goes, he sold his soul to the highest bidder.. And when you go that far theirs no substance to the man just a $3 Bil. suit.
    That cost Real America 2 wars, our life savings, jobs, homes,innocent soldiers lives,hundred thousand Iraqi lives and our dignity around the world...

    But don't worry, bout time the paid media and the professional left get finish propping him up, covering-up his faults, and painting him as the best candidate he'll sail through with flying colors..

    Question: How blind are real Americans to who the real corrupants of our problems? How much blame are they going to lay at the president feet? Are they willing to take on some of that fault for the 2010 midterm election (aka. not voting, to teach PBO & Dems. a lesson, Jane Hamhers, Ed Schultz, DKOs, FDL, Huffpo, M. Moore,etc.)?

    In the meantime, Big Money is betting against the people.
    Because in the real world M.Romney, R. Perry, R. Paul, H. Cain, R. Santoriun, M Bachmann, N. Ginglich wouldn't even be a contender in the policitial specter. But yet, they are the darlings of the media and people who calling themself libs., indeps. are making excuses for these jokers(aka: "they can't be as bad as this Pres.", "he didn't keep his promises" in 36 months, etc.)...

  • j on October 30, 2011 2:46 PM:

    And as bonus Mittens belonged and was a
    disciple of a cult started by a con-man, and fled to France to be a minister of that cult (much to the annoyance of the French)
    just to get out of service in Viet Nam. Who also has numerous mansions, one with stables worth 1.3 million dollars,also who has always had a silver spoon in his mouth and does not know a thing about 'normal' people,

  • AWS on October 30, 2011 2:56 PM:

    Perhaps the most talked-about column of the day is George Will’s piece on Mitt Romney, and for good reason.

    I'd hazard a guess that this is far from the case outside the fever swamp that is the village.

  • Kathryn on October 30, 2011 3:54 PM:

    @worchester girl......Dean Baker at Beat the Press takes Lori Montgomery of WaPo apart today at that site. This is the second time I've noticed her being a tool for corporate America/GOP interests on the front page. Hopefully, a heavy hitter will expose her in letters to the editor, though much damage will be done with her misleading article and prominent front page on Sunday position. I'd cancel that paper if my husband didn't want the sports page.

    @Tanya....Share your frustration with complainers about Obama's lack of perfection. I subscribe to the Nation and am sickened by letters I read there. Hope all are pleased with their protests that elect Mitt Romney or whoever wins. Those judges to the Supreme Court will screw us over for decades, Medicare vouchers (whoopee)' social security cuts, a war in Iran (have you seen his foreign policy advisors), terrified Hispanic population, voter suppression to name a few of the high points.

  • emjayay on October 30, 2011 4:50 PM:

    Kathryn et all: The whole Obama hasn't lived up to his rhetoric (and he hasn't) so I'm gonna take my ball home and not play with you anymore thing is unfortunately rampant over at the otherwise terrific Americablog. It's simply immature. It's what got us Bush because of idealistic progressive votes going to Nader in 2000. Which of course any historian at any time from now to centuries from now will consider a period of idiocy and downfall for our country.

    Obama isn't stupid and is not an asshole. All the potential Republican candidates are both. This isn't a parliamentary system, but one that structually has always ended up with two parties which each adapt to the wants of their members. (OK, and rich people and corporations for both.) Changing that requires structural change, not sitting out an election or voting for Kucinich or whatever.

    And of course unfortunately the Supreme Court in particular has been going the other way for years. Which, considering again the structure defined by the Constitution, can only be slowly changed by better appointments by the president, even if he/she is only the lesser of two evils in your mind.

  • burro on October 30, 2011 5:15 PM:

    "Over the next two or three months, the question the GOP will have to ask itself is whether their Dukakis is good enough." - Mr. B

    Actually that question has been answered. No. They can't stand this ever rotating soap bubble with enough cash to stay afloat.

    The question the gop will have to ask itself is what's the alternative? They are so full of the most boring and putrid crap. They place themselves on a pedestal of all seeing, all knowing superiority, and yet, the string of doofuses, frauds, grifters, charlatans and liars is what we have before us as their offering of who will represent their worldview.

    Who does g.w. want? Who does he think will check off all the many conditions of ideological purity, corporate fealty and small mindedness that he and his peers value above all while not sounding like a compromised, brainwashed toady to the rest of the world? Romney is the perfect manifestation of the convoluted nothingness that the gop presents as it's philosophy.

    Romney is the albatross that g.w. and the gop have earned. Breathe deep George. The stench you smell is the rotten carcass of the cult that you belong to.

  • Ronval912 on October 30, 2011 5:28 PM:

    Dukakis was a great candidate. In fact, every Democratic nominee was better than the GOP nominee for the last 60 years.

  • j on October 30, 2011 5:48 PM:

    I just watched the Perry speech, I have to say he was drunk!

  • square1 on October 30, 2011 9:52 PM:

    I'm not sure what Benen's end game is. He keeps piling on Romney, but for what purpose? Is a better GOP candidate going to emerge?

    The bottom line is that Romney's sin is one that I can live with: An unprincipled douchebag is not someone that I admire but also isn't someone that I tremendously fear, like all-too-principled nutjobs like Bachmann or Santorum. Or like a moron like Perry. Or a combination of both like Cain.

    Do Romney's positions change like a weather vane? Great. That means that, if the guy won, he could conceivably bend to political pressure, unlike GOP ideologues who would ignore all liberal ideas no matter how popular.

    I just don't understand the logic of deliberately trying to get the GOP to nominate a candidate whose election could represent an existential threat to our very republic. Sure, it might improve Obama's chances of winning a little, but is it really worth the risk.

  • mudwall jackson on October 30, 2011 10:23 PM:

    square1,

    do you really think this blog has ANY influence with republican primary voters?

  • Neil B on October 30, 2011 10:39 PM:

    BTW, ethanol subsidies and similar are not derived most from liberal ideology (which, "data driven", would recognize the flabbiness of such a low EROEI process.) Instead, they are derived from the flaws of the *political process* - the prominence of the Iowa caucuses, the power of money in politics (which conservatives oddly protect despite it's obvious role in making government all the more a nuisance in interfering in the economy in the worst way - setting up specific inhibitions and rewards based on who can buy the votes, rather than well thought out public policy.

    "Fine minds make fine distinctions."

  • Bob M on October 30, 2011 10:54 PM:

    Dear me,“Obama isn’t working.”" is a ripoff of Peggy Thatcher's "Labour isn't working" slogan from 1979. Cor-ny.

  • toowearyforoutrage on November 02, 2011 12:14 PM:

    John Kerry was another rather dull, vague "electable" candidate.

    Only Bush's outstanding incompetence allowed Kerry to get so many votes. (assuming the touch screen voting counted the votes accurately. A big honking "IF".)

    As for all the speculation... I've decided. Republicans will be true to form and unify around a Texas oilman once more. Bank bailout to follow in 2015.


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