Speaking Conservatism as a Second Language

by Jonah Goldberg

I’m getting a lot of push back on my Romney post.  So let me clarify: I think the substance of what Romney said is defensible. I’m not wildly in favor of it — I don’t think the government is necessarily there to help any one class. Nor is it  true there’s no safety net for the middle class. One could argue that the generosity (and inefficiency) of the middle class safety net is in fact a big source of our problems. Nor is the proper conservative argument that we’re okay with the very poor doing just fine languishing in the social safety net.

Jen Rubin makes a strong case that Romney was simply taken out of context. Ehh…let’s say that’s true. Let’s also concede that everything in this very thoughtful email from a longtime conservative journalist (working at a non-conservative institution) is true:



I won’t dispute your underlying point: that Romney ought to have enough discipline to stop saying things like “I like to fire people” and “I’m not worried about very poor people.” But, if 30 years as a journalist has taught me anything —  a debatable proposition, to be sure — it’s that ANYTHING a conservative politician says can be hyped as insensitive, or worse. Uttering the name “Juan” in the wrong tone of voice is racist? So, sure, Romney saying “I’m not worried about very poor people” forces his backers to spend half a news cycle explaining what he meant. But why? Journalists know what he meant. He provided enough context in that statement to make it clear. Journalists are making decisions to report this kind of thing because it fits their narrative, and they’ll gladly let others waste their time providing the context. That is supposed to be the job of the press, and they (we) fail miserably at it. It shouldn’t even be a story.

But it is. Why? The wolf and the lamb. Any excuse will serve a tyrant, and when it comes to campaigns, the press is a tyrannical master. So if Romney hadn’t said these things, the press certainly would have found something else he said and made use of that. When the simple utterance of a person’s name can be cause for two days of coverage about whether it was a racist slight, anything is up for grabs. One of these days, Romney is going to say something like “Obama just doesn’t understand how the real economy works, partly because he’s never had a job.” And the New York Times will run a front page story, quoting Al Sharpton and a bevy of psychologists, about how that is racist code. Make book on it.

For me, the other end of this is more worrisome — when he says things like “It’s nothing to get angry about” that annoy the very people he’s trying to win over and cast doubt on whether he understands the movement he is trying to harness to his own ends. Romney shouldn’t worry about what the press thinks about him saying he likes to fire people. He should be worried that he can’t seem to find the right words, the rhetorical music, that help conservative voters understand that he speaks their language.

I get it, and I agree. Indeed, it’s largely the point of my column today on all of the “racist dog whistle” b.s.

However. Not all media biases are liberal (which is not to say any are conservative — unless you are very far to the left). Al Gore took a terrible beating in the press because of his exaggerating. And he did exaggerate a lot. But it got to the point where if it even sounded like he might be exaggerating the press ran with it. Given the mainstream press’s obvious desire to paint Republicans as heartless and cruel, it behooves Republican candidates not to make their job easier. Now, I can hear it now: Why should conservatives care about the mainstream media? We don’t have to play by their rules! Etc. Well, there are three points to be made:

1) The people who Romney — or any Republican — needs to win do care about the mainstream media. And a conservative needs some deftness to cut through their spin and distortions.

2) Sometimes the media is just reporting accurately what politicians say. That does happen, you know. And I think it’s pretty obvious that Romney needs to do a better job connecting with people, regardless of arguments about media bias. When he’s the one being drowned in negative ads, he needs to be able to convince the sheeple of the middle that the ads and the press are wrong. He needs more work on that.

3) Last, if he’s going to sound tone deaf he might as well be making a conservative argument in a tone deaf way.  That way conservatives can rally to his defense and explain “what he really meant was X.” (See John McCormack here and Mark Steyn below for more on this point) The frustrating problem with Romney is that his flubs and gaffes either share liberal assumptions or are caricatures of conservative ones.

Underneath it all he may well be as conservative as he and his supporters say.  But as even he will admit, he’s a late arrival. And, as you might expect, he speaks conservatism as a second language.