Matt Welch does a good job reviewing last night’s debate, but ends with an odd conclusion:
An opponent confident in his own ideology would have put the incumbent away long ago [bold mine-DL], unless the degradation of American politics is such that a candidate like that wouldn’t have even come this far.
A candidate with firm principles that he can articulate and defend is more prepared to present an appealing argument for his election than someone who lacks them, but that isn’t the same as being confident in one’s own “ideology.” Even if Welch is using ideology and philosophy interchangeably in his article, as he seems to be doing, it doesn’t follow that a more confident candidate “would have put the incumbent away long ago.” Romney is famously unprincipled, but he is only too willing to adhere himself to the current version of ideological movement conservatism as long it is useful to him. As it happens, the idea that a more ideologically “confident” Republican nominee would be easily winning echoes Romney’s own appeals to the powers of resolve in the conduct of foreign policy.
Welch says that Romney did poorly in the debate last night because he avoided “off-putting ideology,” but almost all of the Romney answers that he cites were very ideological ones, and some of them were quite off-putting. The response to the question about differences with Bush was a good example of this. Yes, the answer was mostly just a recitation of Romney’s “five-point plan,” and that plan consists of checking off all of the ideologically correct boxes on fiscal and economic issues.
As Welch points out, Romney’s supposed differences with Bush were all things that Bush campaigned on. Instead of reflecting meaningful differences between the two, the answer affirmed continuity between them and Romney’s adherence to the party line. The only part of the plan that Romney didn’t refer to in that answer was his support for repealing the ACA. Romney’s familiar criticisms on foreign policy were likewise ideological ones intended to appeal to nationalist and “pro-Israel” voters. The problem with these statements wasn’t that Romney was hesitant in making them, but that they were irrelevant to the questions being asked.
Is the main problem with these answers that Romney espouses these views without being “confident” in them as a genuine adherent would be? That seems unlikely. Someone more “confident” in rehearsing these ideological claims could be more appealing if the ideology in question were popular, but on some major issues (e.g., trade, foreign policy) it isn’t. Romney is a flawed messenger, but at least some parts of the message he is conveying would remain “off-putting” no matter how “confident” the messenger was in what he was saying.