May 22, 2007

Even though they're desperate, conservatives can do better than Romney

I was out for a beer with some friends a few weeks back when the conversation turned to a mutual acquaintance of ours. Few of us had many positive things to say about her, but “Dave” steadfastly defended her character. With the combined weight of the majority against him, his arguments grew feebler and feebler: “Who hasn’t done some things they’d regret while high?” “They weren’t even dating at the time!” And finally: “Come on, guys, she’s not that crazy.”

At this, we all fell silent, and Dave sighed and surrendered. “Fine. She’s single, she’s cute, and she seems interested in me. Is that so wrong?”

Every time I hear a conservative defend Mitt Romney, I’m reminded of this exchange. To its author’s credit, the pro-Romney op-ed in Friday’s Maroon (“Romney’s Not Genuine, But He Gets My Vote,” 5/18/2007) dispenses with much of the usual holier-than-thou spin. However, in doing so, it only brings home just how weak the right wing’s arguments are becoming: “He was just saying those things to get elected in a liberal state!” “He had a change of heart!” And now: “Come on, guys, he’s our Bill Clinton!”

The still-unspoken truth: “Fine. He’s got money, he looks presidential, and he seems conservative. You happy?”

You can’t blame conservatives for trying to talk themselves into Romney. Like my friend, they’re desperately short on good options. The other two main contenders for the Republican nomination are maverick independents, and dreams of Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich jumping into the race are as of yet unrealized. In that situation, it’s an easy leap to make; right-wingers need a candidate who will represent their views. Romney is the only one saying what they want to hear, and therefore Romney is that candidate. Any information that suggests that he shouldn’t be must be disregarded or explained away.

Never mind the fact that he’s claiming he has undergone a complete conversion in his political thinking—since the last time he ran for office. After all, Slick Willie was pretty malleable in his day, too, and everybody loved him. And besides, he’s just a politician. They’re all liars. Why should we hold Romney to a higher standard?

In this golden age of the short attention span, too many of us only care about the salient facts of winning and losing. In politics, this can be downright devastating. It leads us to ignore the subtleties that make up the substance of governance. In this case, it’s leading conservatives to glibly dispense with the fundamental tenets of our governing system.

In a model representative democracy, the candidates would tell the voters what they stand for, and the voters would then pick the candidate who best suits their preferences. Mitt Romney is trying to end-run that procedure by completely tying his stances to the prevailing political winds. Voters who pick him run the risk of selecting a candidate who doesn’t at all suit their preferences, someone they would never have supported had they known the truth.

We can argue about Romney’s religious background, his past actions, and every public statement he’s made until we’re blue in the face, and we can draw whatever conclusions we like from them. The fact is, no one knows for sure what Mitt Romney really believes in. If you’re not terrified at the prospect of only finding out when he’s in the White House, read over Article II of the Constitution. You will be.

Expecting a politician to hold fast to every one of his principles when doing so might hurt him at the polls is a little like expecting a one-night stand to turn into true love. But there is a distinct difference between “fibbing” about your true beliefs on a few issues and throwing the very idea of political principle out the window in the name of earning a higher office.

In democracy, sometimes the “good guys” lose. If you’re not willing to accept that you’re often going to have a president you genuinely disagree with, work harder to get more than half of the voters to agree with you. Turning to someone you “disingenuously agree with,” someone of whom you’re admittedly skeptical, poses certain dangers. Here, the danger is entrusting the nation to an utterly untrustworthy president, a president who will say and do anything to get himself in power, a president who is anathema to the way democracy is supposed to work.

Sounds extreme, right? Sure it does. But there’s just as much evidence to suggest that this is the case as there is to suggest that Mitt Romney is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. In the end, we don’t know what we’re getting with Slick Willard. That alone should be enough to convince conservatives to pull the lever for someone else. As one of my friends commented to Dave: “It’s a natural enough response. But you should be prepared to regret it in the morning.”