I am so impressed with the fine-tooth-comb analyses of Iowa and New Hampshire by my Corner colleagues that I am slightly nervous of jumping in with a few home truths in primary colors. Still, here goes:
1. Before people get too overwhelmed with David Brooks’s dismissal of Romney’s chances, let me point to a slight flaw in the argument. David wrote as follows: “And yet as any true conservative can tell you, the sort of rational planning Mitt Romney embodies never works. The world is too complicated and human reason too limited. The PowerPoint mentality always fails to anticipate something. It always yields unintended consequences.”
Or, as the poet Burns writes (as Jeeves likes to remind Bertie): “The best laid plans o’ mice and men/Gang oft agley.”
Exactly, they gang oft agley, not always agley. The conservative objection is to state planning because it is state planning, not because it is planning. It crowds out the plans of other people that might be better plans. Planning is essential to great exercises as different as D-Day and running for the presidency; of course, the planning may gang oft agley, but things will certainly gang agley if no planning at all is done.
I wouldn’t bother with this point if it weren’t a sub-variant or branch of a common conservative anti-Romney criticism — namely, that he is too perfect. Now, from a public-relations standpoint, Mitt Romney might well be advised to have his hair mussed or his nose broken to escape the curse of his good looks and better resemble a regular guy. From a rational perspective, however, it really isn’t possible to be too perfect either logically or practically. And the accusation that Romney is too perfect really amounts to an admission by his opponents that they have no really serious criticisms to mount against him.
2. On what grounds should we choose a candidate? Is it impossibly paradoxical to suggest that we should support the candidate who most closely conforms to conservative views? In my book that would rank the candidates in the following order: Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee. (Actually, Duncan Hunter would be high in this list if I were not confining myself to the expected winners. And if I were to omit the pro-life argument, I would reverse the positions of Giuliani and McCain.)
3. Okay, let me concede that another important consideration is which candidate is most likely to defeat the other side in the general election. Now, that is a much harder question to answer accurately: this time last cycle people decided that John Kerry was the most electable Democrat. Most voters have no idea of the candidates at this stage — and the usual rankings in the media reflect name recognition as much as deep affection (with the exception of Huckabee.) Still, allowing for uncertainty — or as Mark says, nobody knows nuthin’ — the candidates who combine conservatism and electability look to me to be as follows: Mitt Romney, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee.
4. Just how do we balance conservatism versus electability? This question is rarely asked because political professionals hate even raising the possibility that conservatives may sometimes benefit from losing. But that can happen if (a) the Democrat elected is weak and unsuccessful and creates the opportunity for conservatives to win a historical watershed victory ( e.g., Jimmy Carter), or if (b) the Republican elected is so hostile to conservatism that he moves the entire political spectrum to the Left both in policy and personnel. Only one candidate fits that particular bill — namely, John McCain. Sure, there are ways in which McCain is a conservative — such as defense, Iraq, and foreign policy — but they are ways in which all the candidates are conservatives. On almost every other policy McCain has spent the last seven years spitting on conservatives — on taxes, on campaign finance, on immigration — and in the last few weeks some conservatives have been hailing delightedly this as rain. How will they like the downpour if McCain wins?
5. To which McCainiacs reply: Don’t worry — we’re assured by National Review that “flip-flopping” is okay provided that the flipper flops in your direction. Actually NR — in the person of Ramesh Ponnuru — argued that flip-flopping was okay if you were morally certain that the flipper would stay flopped and not flip-flop back again. For good or ill Romney and Giuliani have convinced me (and I believe most of my colleagues) that they have finally come to rest in their present positions and will flip no more. Thompson has done the minimum of flipping in any event, and Huckabee’s main flaw is that he refuses to flip out of his current positions into sensible ones. That leaves McCain who, even as he forces the flipping words out of his mouth, signals wildly that he doesn’t mean a flop of them. Why do you think that ultra-liberal commentators such as Harold Meyerson in the Post praise his decency etc. except as a way of attacking the other GOP hopefuls? Would Meyerson be so gushing if McCain really had committed himself to an “enforcement first” strategy on immigration? There is nothing remotely dishonorable here, of course; if anything the reverse. Many voters, conservative or otherwise, will reasonably admire a candidate who, even when he is forced to pander to them by brute necessity, simply cannot do so with a straight face or without saving ironic asides. Still, conservatives will want to consider whether they should support a candidate who, however honorably, seems to detest half their opinions.
The voters will begin to issue their verdicts tomorrow. In doing so, they should remember the following points: Romney or Thompson may have a lesser chance of winning the general election than either McCain or Giuliani. But if either wins the election, they are certain to form a more conservative administration than either McCain or Giuliani. So you take only one risk of disappointment with Mitt and Fred versus two risks of disappointment with Rudy and one risk plus one certainty of disappointment with John. And Huckabee … don’t ask!