Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Milhous And Son

In his first outing as a regular Rolling Stone columnist, Nixonland author Rick Perlstein writes about lessons he thinks Mitt Romney learned from his father, George, and from the way Richard Nixon defeated him in the 1968 GOP primaries. Father and son are shown above in 1964. Perlstein describes the elder Romney as a paragon of progressive Republican rectitude whose critique of the Vietnam war was misunderstood and unfairly devalued. In 1968,

[Nixon ran] what you might call a robotic campaign, just [BSing] about Vietnam, hinting he had a secret plan to end it. The truth was a dull weapon to take into a knife fight with Richard Nixon – who kicked [George] Romney's ass with 79 percent of the vote. When people call his son the "Rombot," think about that: Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills. Heeding the lesson of his father's fall, he became a virtual parody of an inauthentic politician. In 1994 he ran for senate to Ted Kennedy's left on gay rights; as governor, of course, he installed the dreaded individual mandate into Massachusetts' healthcare system. Then he raced to the right to run for president.

Nixon's famous for promoting the truism that Republicans should run to the right in primaries and the center in the general. Perlstein makes some intriguing points. But if the main one is that Mitt Romney's following Nixon's advice, he's hardly the first, and he won't be the last as long as the nomination process is so heavily influenced by social conservatives. I'm not arguing in favor of inauthenticity as a leading political virtue. But the fact is that no one admitting to the mortal sin of being a moderate can be nominated in today's GOP, leaving the candidate who may still believe in the broad-gauge, non-ideological party of Lincoln, Rockefeller, and Nixon the choices of not running, changing parties, or playing hide the pragmatist.

Perlstein believes that Romney, if he's nominated, will stay right during the general election. "[T]he party won't have it any other way," he writes. But Romney's outfoxed the party so far, evading one conservative challenger after another in the GOP fire swamp (though he was singed last night in South Carolina). What activists will expect from him in return for their eventual grudging support is something he'll have to take into account. Nixon's advice the day after the convention would be: "You owe them nothing." By the same token, some on the right may decide that a Romney loss would be better in the long run. If a few conservatives end up staying home, so be it, because with or without them, only the Massachusetts moderate has a chance against Barack Obama.

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