In the aftermath of Wednesday’s Republican debate, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, speaking to an audience in Dallas, sighed that he “used to be a conservative.” It wasn’t exactly a David Brock-like ideological volte face, but a broad complaint that some of the rhetoric from the Republican presidential field was "a little troubling… appealing to people's fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective.” On Fox News, that citadel of red-meat conservatism, Karl Rove nodded in approval: “Look, I share his concern.”
So after the divisive years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the man once derided as “Bush’s brain,” and the politician who has the distinct misfortune of being Bush’s brother, are appealing to Republicans to stop the divisiveness. Go figure.
As the Republican nominating process chugs to its baffling conclusion, and the remaining candidates parse important social issues (like Santorum’s blathering about “homosexual acts” and contraception as a “license to do things in a sexual realm that is contrary to how things are supposed to be"), swing voters are deciding to cast ballots for whoever doesn’t want to smite the devil from the Oval Office. It would be advisable for the Republican nominee to quickly recalibrate the Santorum-provoked social debate back towards the center, leaving the 700 Club discussions to the upper reaches of the cable dial, and hope that general election voters forget all those things that “trouble” Jeb. Think that’s an obvious point? Recall that in 2008, conservative doyens complained that the party ceded the presidency to Barack Obama by embracing a nominee—John McCain—who was insufficiently conservative.
It doesn’t help Republicans much that this primary season feels like a Claude Lanzmann film: important, but interminable and deeply, deeply depressing. Wednesday’s Republican debate, we’ve been promised, was the final intermural skirmish before Mitt Romney (likely) or Rick Santorum (thankfully unlikely) or whoever is anointed at a brokered convention (you thought Sarah Palin was finished, did you?), faces a president with stagnant approval ratings. It was fitting to see the four remaining candidates slumped into chairs rather than standing at lecterns, looking alternately bored and exhausted, tired of proclaiming that they were the one who really loves freedom and liberty, and it is they—excepting Ron Paul, of course—who would best assist the Iranian mullahs in their desire to achieve an otherworldly paradise.
They’re tedious, repetitive, and frequently cringe inducing, but it’s wrong to assume, as many of my blissfully non-political friends have, that the Republican debates are meaningless exercises in sound bite jingoism. The bored press corps, excited by Santorum’s mini surge, took to Twitter to provide color commentary for his self-immolation. His brief moment as pack leader ended when, scowling and back on his heels, he explained how a limited government conservative could, once installed on Capitol Hill, justify voting for programs he ideologically opposed because politics is a “team sport.” Or something. And don’t forget Rick Perry’s tongue-tied and semi-coherent performances, during which he couldn’t recall which departments would be eliminated by his administration. Perry, once the latest Republican hope, is now Callitsa Gingrich’s debate chaperone.
Indeed, there was some substance in Wednesday’s debate, like the reasonably instructive conversation about earmarks—the only portion worth watching—that was too deep-in-the-weeds for most viewers (and represents a vanishingly small portion of the budget anyway), while the more pressing issue of unemployment and the wreckage of the housing market was something of an afterthought. Rather than ruminating on stagnant wages and sparse jobs, Mitt Romney fretted about Hezbollah training facilities in “Mexico and Latin America” that threaten America’s security—an issue of concern to exactly zero swing voters. The average viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the Republican candidates have been playing in the conservative sandbox for too long, muscle flexing on Iran and Syria, talking Jesus and sexual morality, and skirting, though not completely ignoring, those issues where Barack Obama is most vulnerable.
And while it’s undeniable, as a number of conservative commenters have observed, that a high percentage of American voters believe in the supernatural, it’s a considerably smaller group that wants a messianic politician—like one who has declared that the separation of church and state nauseates him—to inhabit the White House. Indeed, beltway Republicans are terrified at the prospect of a Santorum-like candidate—a nominee who fears, in equal measure, bathhouses and al Qaeda safe houses—walking away with the nomination, virtually ensuring a second term for President Obama.
The left-leaning magazine The New Republic argued recently that “A specter is haunting the Republican establishment—the specter of Barry Goldwater,” the 1964 Republican candidate who, portrayed as an extreme conservative far outside the mainstream debate, was steamrolled by incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson, sending his party into the wilderness until the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. There might be parallels between the two races—like the misguided assumption from those obsessed with ideological purity that a secret conservative majority would elect Goldwater/Santorum—but the two figures couldn’t be more different. After all, it was Goldwater who admonished his coreligionists to embrace the separation of church and state, accept gay soldiers into the military, and advised "Every good Christian [to] line up and kick Jerry Falwell's ass."
Follow Michael Moynihan on Twitter: @mcmoynihan
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