Smiling Through the 2012 Nakba
I know I’ve told this story somewhere in NR’s pages before, perhaps even in this space. But I’ll tell it again. A friend of mine lived in Costa Rica for a while. While there, she went to the movies. She saw the first Wayne’s World movie in English, but with Spanish subtitles. Fluent in both languages, she liked following the translated dialogue. In one scene, Wayne (played by Mike Myers) says, “Yeah, when monkeys fly out of my butt!”
The translation on the bottom of the screen? “Yes, when Judgment Day comes.”
In short, something was lost in translation.
This was Mitt Romney’s problem in a nutshell. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to shovel all of the blame onto Mitt Romney for what shall henceforth be known as the conservative nakba (an Arabic term meaning “disaster” or “calamity,” usually used in the Middle East to describe Israel’s creation in 1948).
But there’s no escaping the fact that “candidates matter.” I put that phrase in quotation marks because it is already gelling into a kind-hearted euphemism among conservative pundits for “Romney was a bad candidate.” Indeed, a LexisNexis search reveals that I was the first person to point out that Romney speaks conservatism as a second language. He’s a smart and decent man — smarter and more decent than yours truly or most people you’ll ever meet. Nonetheless, he came to conservatism very late. It is axiomatic: The man who ran to Ted Kennedy’s left on the issue of abortion in Massachusetts was not a lifelong conservative.
That in itself isn’t damning. Ronald Reagan was a relatively late convert to conservatism (as were a great many of the first editors of this magazine). But Reagan came to conservatism organically, and he learned to speak its language both through immersion and through conviction. He was also, in the best sense of the word, a great politician.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, seemed to learn the language by rote, memorizing phrases the way a committed tourist studies a Berlitz phrasebook on the flight across the pond. Add in the man’s utterly authentic stiffness and you can see where his “47 percent” comments came from. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he told the audience he was “severely conservative” — a phrase that not even severe conservatives have ever thought to use.
Conservatism, and the Republican party it largely controls, faces deep and complicated challenges, to be sure. There are myriad debates to be had over policy, philosophy, branding, what have you. As I write this, there’s a lot of chatter about how Republicans should find some grand bargain on immigration to put the issue behind us. I would like that myself, if it were possible. It vexes me no end that the Left has managed to co-opt the immigrant success story as one of its talking points. But even if some grand amnesty worked beyond our wildest dreams, there’s little evidence that Hispanics would suddenly become Republicans. That still takes persuasion. And the plain truth is that voters won’t buy even the best conservative ideas if the guy hawking them doesn’t speak the language — in English or Spanish. It won’t happen if he keeps talking until Judgment Day, or even until monkeys fly out of his butt, whichever comes first.