Sometimes Caution Can Backfire

December 22, 2011

There seems to be a common line of demarcation separating two basic factions on the political right in the various skirmishes we have fought against Barack Obama, from their markedly different approaches to the budget battles to their differences in sizing up the GOP presidential candidates.

On one side we have the more moderate group, which is more cautious, less risk averse, less excitable, self-consciously pragmatic and more tolerant toward an establishment ruling class, even if not per se establishment itself. On the other side are those who perceive more urgency in our current national condition, are more adamant about adhering to conservative principles to reverse this catastrophe and reject the charge that they are recklessly purist.

Many from the first group have urged restraint and pragmatism in the budget negotiations, insisting it was too risky to force a government shutdown with Obama, that the big prize is 2012 and the best way to secure it is to avoid taking a hard line, which would hand Obama 2012 propaganda ammunition.

In each round of budget battles, with a spirit of defeatism and resignation, they warned against Republican brinksmanship, because they were convinced Obama would automatically win every PR victory. It was as though they had forgotten who’d won the 2010 congressional elections.

Obviously, they didn’t believe Republicans could convince the electorate that they had the better argument, even though they were the ones drawing a line in the sand on spending, which was what caused the crisis. Also, they had no confidence that Republicans could persuade voters that Democrats were lying when they said that the government would actually default on its major obligations.

The first group seemed less outraged that the entire ruling class, including our GOP guys, allowed mere reductions in spending increases to be called spending cuts. Nor were they as troubled when our guys, instead of saying, “Sorry, folks, this is the best we can do under a dishonest socialist president,” came closer to saying, “Hey, we’ve achieved a pretty good deal here in real terms.”

This group assured us it was holding its major firepower for the 2012 elections. Yet 2012 is here, and they still seem reluctant to bring out the heavy artillery. They are giving their full-throated support to Mr. Caution himself, Mitt Romney, once again saying we can’t afford the risk of putting our support behind someone more conservative.

It appears they believe that national elections are a zero-sum game with a fixed number of voters in both the Democrat and Republican camps, and that whichever candidate attracts more independents (who are always presumed, in this static analysis, to constitute 20 percent of the electorate) will win.

This reasoning strikes me as flawed because: a) twice as many people self-identify as conservatives than as liberals (this is different from party ID, but still); b) history invalidates the theory, –e.g., Reagan; c) no one really knows what the amorphous term “independent” means; d) with a president as extremist and destructive as Obama, independents are much less likely to fall his way, and more likely to be receptive to conservative ideas, because they represent the opposite of Obama’s failed policies, and e) it discounts the various aspects of voter intensity: 1) certain candidates will energize their base more, 2) certain ones might alienate some in their base so badly they stay home, and 3) certain ones may scare the otherwise apathetic independents and even members of the opposite party to vote for the other guy.

The first group, generally speaking, is falling into Romney’s camp, arguing that he is the safest bet and that we can’t afford any risks, given the enormity of the stakes. I’m just not so sure. So many number-crunching Republican analysts said he was a shoe-in for the nomination in 2008, but their static analysis failed. Romney does not energize the base, especially the tea party, or anyone else for that matter. His appeal is not that he inspires, but that he supposedly doesn’t repel. But in fact, to the contrary, he does repel a good number of conservatives, because they don’t trust him in general and/or don’t trust he’s a conservative.

Ironically, many who’ve laid claim to sober, adult political analyses the past few years and have scolded others for their alleged harshness in attacking Obama are the very ones who have thrown caution overboard in their relentless, unmeasured scorched-earth savagery of Newt Gingrich.

Though recognizing his weaknesses, I prefer Newt Gingrich over Mitt, and Rick Santorum and maybe Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann over both. But without hesitation, I’ll vote for Romney should he get the nomination. Can the Romney supporters say the same about Newt?