alien & sedition.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
  Phoniness Defended

Yesterday, Soren Dayton wondered what it says about conservatives and Republicans that they've become so nonchalant about -- even supportive of -- naked pandering:
So the pattern is clear. Run on some positions your whole life, then change them to win the nomination. Then what?

Is that a healthy way for a political party or a political movement to behave? What does this say about our intellectual class?
Now Patrick Ruffini responds with a spirited defense of flip-flopping. Ruffini argues that it's better to support a panderer who'll give you what you want than an "authentic" candidate (he has McCain in mind) who's "authentically" wrong:
But that's the problem isn't it? McCain led. He led on BCRA. He led on CIR. He led the fight against the Bush tax cuts. He led the Republicans for the Kyoto treaty. All of Romney's flip-flops don't change the fact that McCain is responsible for the abomination that is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Whenever McCain leads, it's usually in the wrong direction. That's why conservatives don't trust him.
He also points out that, having flipped, it's unlikely that Romney et al will flip back again to more "liberal" positions -- it would be political suicide to do so in the election, and history tells us that presidents generally govern more or less as they say they will during their campaigns (subject to all kinds of caveats, but let's concede the point for now).

Lest we drown in a wave of bilious irony, Ruffini assures us that it was totally different when his fellow conservatives attacked John Kerry for being, y'know, a flip-flopper:
But the frame against Kerry was that he was too unsteady and indecisive to win a war.Can McCain credibly make that case against the others? That Rudy Giuliani will wilt against al Qaeda because he moved on CFR? Please.
This is nonsense, of course -- an ex post facto attempt to justify a meta-flip flop, a flip-flop on the subject of flip-flopping. And Bush's "decisiveness" is precisely what got us into a disastrous war, and what is causing us to lose that war. But that's a tangent.

Ruffini's a very smart guy, and on one level, despite his hypocrisy, he's got a case. If you're devoted to a certain set of principles, you prefer candidates who will endorse those principles to those who will not; authenticity is in that regard a secondary consideration. But I wonder if he has given enough consideration to what he himself is endorsing. Romney, for instance, is not just a politician who has changed his mind, he is the definitive phony -- as Josh Marshall put it, he "seems so transparently phony, so willing to say anything that I find him genuinely frightening." Now you can make a case that such a nonentity might not be so bad, from a technocratic standpoint. But to return to Dayton's question: what does it say about the movement?

What does it say that in order to embrace the conservative ideological line, candidates are forced to bend so far that the exercise becomes comical? What does it say that conservatives seem to care more about hearing candidates sing the old standards of the right than about hearing creative ideas to get beyond the current crisis (both the national crisis and that of the conservative movement)? What does it say that the preference is for phoniness and rote ideology as opposed to leadership and vision?

They're open-ended questions, but I can't help thinking of Rick Perlstein's recent article in The Nation, where he describes how Ronald Reagan refused to be limited to his pollsters' advice:
But the more profound lesson is that the greatest politicians create their own issues, ones that no one knew existed. Was the mood in California favorable for Reagan's conservative message in 1966? Obviously, or else Reagan wouldn't have won; he wasn't a magician. But he was--yes--a great communicator, confident of his gifts. By listening and interacting with ordinary people, and sniffing out where his own sense of right and wrong dovetailed with what he heard, he divined a certain inchoate mood....

That's the danger of even the best polling: its power to smother intuitive leaders in the cradle.
One might argue that too much tolerance of poll-driven phoniness will strangle them just as surely.

Cross-posted at The Right's Field.

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