I’m not sure why George Will and other boosters of the Terrible Trio feel obliged to point out all of Reagan’s worst deeds in state government. They seem to think that what Reagan did on economic and social policy shouldn’t disturb us much because we all know that he became a paragon of conservatism. If he could become a great conservative icon after signing legalised abortion and no-fault divorce bills, surely Giuliani can become another icon! Of course, this does nothing but to drive home just how unduly flexible and unprincipled our use of the word “conservative” will have had to become if we want to whitewash Reagan’s past mistakes in the name of hero-worship. It’s also worth pointing out that Reagan did not actually become the nominee until a lengthy, decent interval had passed between his Californian errors and his 1980 campaign. If Reagan was engaged in rank opportunism as he moved somewhat to the right on social issues, he did not benefit from it without having to wait for a while. Romney would like to skip the decade-long wait and the failed nomination challenge, and McCain and Giuliani would prefer to not play the role of Reagan at all. They are all obviously unusually power-hungry men who radiate an exceptionally dangerous sense of self-importance, and voters would have to be either drunk or mad to give any of them the kind of power they want to have.
Will seems to see nothing wrong with the possibility that Romney is merely cynically manipulating voters with this appeal. But Romney knows that Mr. Bush didn’t have to govern anything like a conservative and still won re-election; he simply wants to get a shot at the White House, and he thinks he has found his way to do that. Once he’s in, he can govern however he likes while still mouthing all the right platitudes. As long as his reversion to form isn’t too blatant or sudden, he will not suffer too much politically. He doesn’t have to turn back into a full-blown pro-abortion, tax-hiking pol to betray the people whose support he wants now; he simply needs to not act on any of the things that matter to conservatives, and he will have shown himself to be a con-man. Having been burned by one massive fraud of a conservative President, whose lack of conservatism some of us could see from a mile away, many more on the right are now unsurprisingly not content to go through it all over again.
There are two big problems with Will’s use of Reagan here: the very examples Will cites remind us that Reagan was never that paragon of conservatism in all respects, and breathless invocations of him as such are bound to come off sounding a little strange; even if Reagan were that paragon, what sort of accomplishment would it be for conservatives to be right back where they were 27 years ago in terms of their choices for leadership? That is what Will and other party establishment types are insisting upon: after a generation of building a (rather largely unsuccessful) movement, conservatives should be willing to accept these three astonishingly poor, unelectable candidates because Reagan, who was actually a strong, electable candidate who showed more respect than offering mere lip service to conservatives, also failed to live up to social conservative orthodoxies that had not yet become prevailing concerns of what had been hitherto primarily a government-shrinking, constitutionalist political movement. Because at least some of the most radical innovations in social policy had not yet occurred, there was not yet a groundswell of religious conservative opposition to those innovations, so it is no wonder that there would have been a greater tolerance for new and possibly opportunistic “converts” in those days. Now one might expect to be able to find someone much more reliable and credible on these matters. Meanwhile, these three, unlike Reagan, have all had the chance to see the bad fruits of past mistakes and the disintegration of social order attendant upon socially liberal policies that they have all supported or still support and yet they were/are completely unconcerned about the consequences of the bad policies they favoured/favour. They have all demonstrated decades-long persistence in anti-conservative views on some of the more important questions of the day; only Romney has had the unusually poor taste of pretending that he is now truly “one of us.” According to Will, because Reagan, who was always of a more socially “libertarian” bent when it came to government, made similarly gross deviations particularly from social conservatism (a social conservatism that had not yet become politically important), their gross deviations should be accepted today in the vague hope that maybe, just maybe, one of these three might also…cut our taxes!
In fact, Will seems to be confirming what social and religious conservatives are already saying: whether or not conservatism comes in quite as many flavours as Will thinks (including those delicious non-conservative and faux conservative flavours), the social conservatives don’t much care for the taste of any of these three. Will here simply tells them to shut up and eat their socially liberal vegetables. In short, the establishment doesn’t care at all whether the rank-and-file like the options being forced down their throat, and it is telling them: you’d better get used to it, because we’re not going to allow any of these other candidates to go anywhere.
But it isn’t just the folks primarily concerned with abortion who are unhappy. If you’re an antitax man, Romney and McCain are definitely bad bets; if you’re a restrictionist, Giuliani and McCain are far beyond the pale, and Romney can’t be trusted (just as he can’t be trusted on anything). You can do this on every policy question, and you will discover just how horrendous these three are. It is not for nothing that an amnesty-backing humanitarian interventionist such as Brownback can gain some traction when he portrays himself as a “full-scale conservative.” He isn’t any such thing, but he is so much more believable than these other three and so much more reliable on a host of issues (notably not including immigration) that it is laughable than the others are leading the field.
Even understanding their establishment ties and their contempt for the broad mass of conservative voters, it is still somewhat bizarre to watch Republican pundits push these candidates. It is as if many of the major Democratic talking heads and writers rallied around an unreconstructed Southern Democrat, Joe Lieberman and a recently-converted liberal zealot, James Inhofe, who just “discovered” that Kyoto is imperative for planetary survival and wants to campaign on a “Share Our Wealth” platform. Far from being treated as the natural or obvious top three candidates for the Democratic nomination, virtually no one would give them the time of day, since they would be either completely unrepresentative of the party they were trying to lead or completely untrustworthy. “I have learned from experience that global warming is not the elaborate conspiracy and hoax that I have been saying it was for all those years,” Inhofe would say, and perhaps little websites would be started up called Greens for Inhofe. Perhaps someone will say that this is the virtue of the “broad-minded” “big tent” of the GOP that you can have three leading candidates who don’t believe in most of the things the rank-and-file believe (or whose convictions cannot be trusted), but I imagine that would simply confirm for everyone that the “big tent” rhetoric was always just a way to foist unwanted candidates and policies on the voters.