There’s probably a bit of wishful thinking in John Dickerson’s The Coming War Within the Republican Party, arguing that a lot of major conservative voices are already assuming Romney will lose the election, as shown by their jumping in to be the first ones to explain why and therefore try to set the story for the future. (He quotes David Brooks, Haley Barbour, and Bill Kristol.) Even if a little ahead of the story, Dickerson is right that advance postmortems performed by people on his side suggest they think Romney is going down.
The debate that will develop among conservatives if Romney loses an election that a few months ago was widely thought to be unlosable will, Dickerson thinks, cover two subjects, one specific and one more general.
The rough contours of this conversation about the party’s future center on whether the party’s tone on immigration and the role of government have gotten out of sync with the electorate. Grassroots activists will argue that Romney was a compromise candidate who could never articulate the anti-government case for freedom and that’s why he’s having a hard time. (That is the argument Rick Santorum made during the primaries.) Others will argue that the Tea Party pushed Romney—as it will every candidate—into ever-more absolutist positions on immigration and the role of government.
The majority of the country believes the government does too much. So there the Republicans should have the winning argument.
But though having the winning argument they seem to be losing the game anyway. It’s like watching someone with a royal flush trade in the queen, the king, and the ace — after putting all his money in the pot. Or like watching a man who ought to present a vision of hope for struggling Americans telling his wealthiest supporters that a lot of them (the strugglers, not, definitely not, the wealthy) are just no good. It’s what Republicans do, lose their advantages, but one wishes Romney hadn’t done it by kicking people when they’re down. Outside the people he was talking to and would-be Randian supermen and a few others, Americans don’t like that.
Here’s another entry of the sort Dickerson was writing about, and a very good one. Writing in the Washington Post, the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen laments Romney’s drift from the true heart of conservatism. Referring to the examples of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, he writes that at the center of modern American conservatism’s achievement
was an obvious respect for the innate dignity of the average American. . . . Reagan addressed what he called “the forgotten American — that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as free lunch.’ ” In Reagan’s America, it was okay if you wanted to lead a quiet life, so long as you did not prevent others from pursuing their dreams. . . . And in Reagan’s view, ordinary people were capable of greatness. . . .
It wasn’t so long ago that mainstream conservatism represented these values.
Olsen is a vice president of AEI, not only an insider in the conservative world but an insider fairly high up. He implies, though he doesn’t quite say, that Romney does not share these mainstream conservative values. When the candidate
divides the world into makers and takers and presumes that our ability to pay federal income tax is a measure of which group we belong to, he sends a different message. He implicitly tells average Americans that their quiet work doesn’t “make” America unless they are entrepreneurs who make enough money. Worse, he tells them that their lives aren’t even dignified, that they are “takers” who are unable to exercise personal responsibility over their lives.
It is hard to disagree. And it is hard not to think that whatever Romney says, his comments on the makers and takers reflect his real beliefs about the world, and the beliefs by which he will govern, if elected. A conservative may say, as Olsen does, that he has no choice but to vote for Romney. But not because the candidate offers a humane, hopeful, and realistic — a genuinely and winsomely conservative — vision for American life.