I’ve been meaning to comment on this Jan. 1 column by David Brooks about Mitt Romney. Brooks, a McCain supporter, argues that Romney is unelectable because he “has chosen to model himself on a version of Republicanism that is receding into memory” — Reagan Republicanism.
There’s much that’s unfair and unsupported in Brooks’ piece. He accuses Romney of having “embraced a culture war against the faithless.” Brooks is probably referring to the fact Romney didn’t put in a good word for atheists in his speech about religion, which is not quite the same thing as embracing a culture war.
Romney has put in good words for the Gitmo detention center, and Brooks assumes that this is part of a methodical effort to appeal to national security conservatives. But Brooks offers no reason to doubt that Romney is himself a national security conservative who is genuinely appalled by the “terrorist rights” agenda.
Brooks also asserts that “[t]he leaders of the Republican coalition know Romney will lose [b]ut some would rather remain in control of a party that loses than lose control of a party that wins.” Brooks’ New York Times audience presumably will accept uncritically this demonization of Republican leaders, but it doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Party leaders do understand, I think, that Romney probably won’t be easy to elect, but there’s no evidence that they “know” he will lose, nor could anyone know this. Those who support Romney are putting a premium on his present adherence to traditional conservative positions — a fairly standard posture — and counting on the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They are not accepting an inevitable defeat in order to retain “control.”
As I’ve just suggested, Brooks is correct to the extent he believes that Romney will be difficult to elect. It’s never easy for a party to elect a presidential candidate after two terms of rule. The task is even tougher, surely, when the incumbent president is unpopular. As I’ve maintained from the beginning, other things being roughly equal the Republicans will be better positioned under these circumstances if they nominate a candidate like Giuliani or McCain who has already established himself as a heroic and independent figure than if they nominate a candidate like Romney who is introducing himself to the public in this environment as a down-the-line conservative (and in his case as a flip-flopper). But, of course, nominating an independent figure — even if he’s a hero — has its downside if one is a Reagan conservative.
Finally, Brooks is on shaky ground when he argues that concerns about Romney’s electability mean that, as a general matter, Reagan conservatism is “the road to nowhere.” Aspects of that agenda may lack appeal to independents this year, especially if promoted by a candidate some consider insincere. But this more a function of Bush fatigue, exacerbated by an unpopular war, than of any inherent disconnect between Reaganism and the modern American public.
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