OH, not the End of the World (again), and not the Death of the American Experiment, although every time I read Douthat's byline at the Times I wonder what's holding that up. No, what's over is the Republican presidential race.
And, in a shocker, the winner is the guy who most resembles Ross Douthat: a moderate Republican (a "moderate Republican" is one who won't scream in public that all Muslims should be in Gitmo, or all Medicare recipients on ice floes, unless there's profit to be made, or an election to be won) with a history of religious nutjobbery running in the family, willing to disown his own ideas if the mob thinks otherwise or the winds change direction, and undoubtedly nostalgic for the time when all those other religious nutjobs ("the base") filled the coffers, passed out campaign literature on Sunday, voted Republican, then went back to screaming about abortion for four years.
I have no idea whether Romney is inevitable. What I am pretty sure of is that if this is so it should be a clear indication even to Republicans that the brand has been selling tainted tinned meat by-product for so long the survivors can't tell the difference.
Let's just note again that in 2008, with the Bush/Republican party sure to suffer another crushing at the polls, this one involving the Constitutional Big Daddy figure such types love, Douthat co-authored a blueprint for a "conservative" resurgence. One which lasted all the way to Inauguration Day 2009 before falling victim to what his critics might call "the fucking reality of the Republican party anyone not willfully blind, congenitally mazed, and/or aware that the Bill Kristol seat at the Times was going to be vacant soon--I mean "vacant without Bill Kristol" as opposed to vacant with him--understood at a glance." Let's just say that the much-anticipated soul-searching for the future of "conservatism" did not survive the realization that Barack Obama is black. Like David Brooks, Douthat went from mild condescension about the Teabaggers to running around to the front of the parade and pretending to be its drum major, and pretending to mute the racist section with a withering stare. (Brooks got there first, if only because the much-ballyhooed and wholly-fictional shelving of culture war themes seemed to've hurt Ross' feelings, proving once again that the only people who believe the Right's PR crap are the same people who dish it out.)
Four years later there's one Presidential candidate who embodies Douthat's vision: Mitt Romney. Only problem is it's the Mitt Romney of 2004. The current Mitt Romney is the guy who's been furiously backpedaling for five years now in an effort to appease the base ("mouthbreathers"). Which, in Douthat's view, proves he was right all along.
Last week the big story was Herman Cain’s rise to the top of the polls, and then Rick Perry’s combativeness at the Las Vegas debate. Next week, perhaps, it will be Newt Gingrich’s surprising resilience or Ron Paul’s potential strength in the early caucuses or the appeal of Perry’s flat-tax plan. Then there will come a debate in which Mitt Romney looks shabby instead of smooth, a poll that shows one of his rivals surging, a moment when all his many weaknesses are on every pundit’s lips.
Please do not listen to any of them.
Except the Republican polls haven't been a random walk among announced candidates; it's been Romney, the roundly-disliked, roundly-distrusted "moderate" windsock with the well-financed campaign machine vs. Whichever Genuine Republican (i.e. completely unstable wilting) seemed to have a chance against him. If Newt Gingrich ever gets a second thought that will be news. If Ron Paul ever garners more than his dedicated and unbalanced 10% he might become as much of a danger to Republican politics as he is to himself, and wake me when it happens. What has actually occurred is that Sarah Palin gave way to Donald Trump gave way to Michelle Bachmann gave way to Rick Perry gave way to Herman Cain. You can look this sort of thing up. The probably have records of it someplace on the internets. The Republican party isn't searching for excitement. It might've been, at one time, but that's long past. Today it's searching for a nominee who represents the party. That's not Mitt Romney.
For now, though, none of his rivals look capable of even pushing the race that far. They don’t have the money or the organizational muscle, but more important they aren’t clearing the first hurdle that every presidential candidate faces. After months of campaigning, it is nearly impossible to imagine any of them as a major party’s nominee, much less in the White House.
It's a little late for Republicans to start talking about who is or isn't credible, doncha think?
People like to cite counterexamples: The Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, after all, and the Democrats nominated George McGovern. But Goldwater and McGovern, for all their weaknesses, were far more credible nominees than a Perry, a Herman Cain, a Michele Bachmann, a Newt Gingrich.
This assumes, of course, that our standards haven't sunk as rapidly as the quality of our candidates. An assumption which is at best unwarranted.
They were too extreme to win the general election, but they were not political novices or washed-up self-promoters, and they had a mix of eloquence and experience that’s largely absent from the current Republican field. (Watch clips of Goldwater being interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr. on “Firing Line,” and then try to imagine how Perry would fare in the same format.)
And speaking of unwarranted assumptions, the idea that Bill Fuhbuckley would be turning his High Church monarchist, Latin cognate, and Tourette's syndrome routine on Rich Perry in 2012, the way he did forty-five years ago with Barry Goldwater, sorta raises the question of where one would even find Firing Line these days. Still on the hated PBS? As a lead-in for Chris Wallace? One of the few great moments in justified political payback to've occurred in my lifetime is the fact that Buckley lived long enough for the anti-fluoridationists to throw him out of the party. One of the saddest is that he didn't stay vital long enough to devote an hour to South Park. Or Jersey Shore. I do so hope he enjoyed reading the National Review Online in his dotage.
(And, look, how long is it going to be necessary to respond to the idea of George McGovern, Senator from South Motherfucking Dakota, as the Bolshie version of the racist, sun-mazed Goldwater? Not even close. The whole thing is founded on two repugnant ideas: that Ross Douthat knows anything about political history he didn't learn from Family Ties, assuming that snake-handling cult he grew up in had a teevee, and that the Birchward shift of the "conservative" movement that preceded his birth didn't sweep him up, making Barry Goldwater appear almost rational, something he clearly wasn't in his day. If you're looking for reasons the Republican party has nothing but religious pinheads and fourth-rate grifters left to nominate, maybe there's part of your answer.)
What’s more, Republicans have only themselves to blame for his inevitability. Romney owes his current position to two failures: the Bush era’s serial disasters, which left the Republican establishment without a strong bench of viable national politicians, and the Tea Party’s mix of zeal and naïveté, which has elevated cranks and frauds and future television personalities to the party’s presidential stage.
Political naïveté may be defined here as "demanding implementation of the crackpot shit St. Ronald Reagan said to get elected, and continuing to do so even after a Republican got the seat."
To date, neither the establishment nor the populists have come to terms with the failures of the last age of Republican dominance. And despite occasional flashes of creativity, neither has groped its way to a credible vision of what the next conservative era should look like.
Have your credit card and that ISBN number at the bottom of your screen handy. Make checks payable to "Grand New Party: This Time We Mean It, ℅ Ross Douthat, New York, New York. Operators are standing by.
What they have to offer instead is a largely opportunistic critique of a flailing liberal president. So it’s fitting that America’s most opportunistic politician is destined to be the standard-bearer for their cause.
What a shame that, once again, the "conservative" critique won't be responsible for its consequences, despite everyone's best efforts. Maybe someday they'll get that Purity thing straightened out.