What Does George Will Suggest That Republicans Do?

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The influential conservative columnist is against Mitt Romney. But who is he for? And how does he explain the GOP's pathologies?

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George Will, the influential conservative newspaper columnist, has written a piece in the Washington Post eviscerating Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Its criticisms are devastating because they are accurate: the former Massachusetts governor flip flops constantly, has no apparent principles, and takes all sorts of damaging, indefensible positions in the course of his pandering. "Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming," Will writes. "Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?"

So concludes the column. Can I request a sequel? If not Romney, who? If the problem with the former Massachusetts governor is that he seems "to lack the courage of his absence of convictions," is Rick Perry any better? The Texas governor has disavowed the views on federalism that he expressed in a book he wrote on federalism; he seeks to be the champion of a Tea Party that rails against crony capitalism, even as his tenure in Texas reeks of public sector decisions determining private sector winners; and the surest way to succeed in the Lone Star State seems to be making a hefty donation to the Rick Perry campaign fund. Even if Perry's principles, ethics and flip-flopping weren't disqualifying, his inability to articulate himself in public or summon the energy necessary to hold his own on a debate stage doom his general election chances. And his signature domestic proposal on taxes is, as Reihan Salam puts it, an embarrassment.

So Herman Cain? He flip-flopped on a matter of grave consequence, the assassination without due process of an American citizen; his 9-9-9 plan, the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, is nonsense; he flaunts his ignorance of foreign policy specifics, and his general foreign policy philosophy can't stand up to the simplest criticism; and anyway, Will doesn't think he can win either.

There are, of course, better candidates if one begins to look at the folks most actual Republican voters are ignoring. Jon Huntsman is a credible candidate for movement conservatives, even if they don't know it. Gary Johnson and Ron Paul are both principled champions of what Tea Partiers say they believe, and seldom if ever compromise their values or flip flop. An endorsement of any of these three in a new Will column would be a significant boost.

And although it's too late now for Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty or Bobby Jindhal or Chris Christie, there are plenty of Republicans out there who are more appealing than Romney/Cain/Perry. Why haven't they run? How is it that the GOP has wound up with front-runners so unappealing?

I have a theory. And a George Will column affirming it would also go a long way toward addressing what ails the right. Here goes. There is no good alternative to Romney -- the Tea Party has failed to produce a credible candidate -- in large part because the conservative movement (as distinct from the political philosophy of conservatism) has been intellectually bankrupted by talk radio and cable news hosts who make millions of dollars per year dressing up catharsis as serious analysis -- and the folks who know better at National Review, the Weekly Standard, AEI, the Claremont Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and elsewhere have, with a few notable exceptions, failed to challenge the cults of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Andrew Breitbart, and their ilk, because at one time they seemed like useful tools to fire up the base, and at some point they became sufficiently powerful that to take them on is to lose fans and money and friends within the movement and time reading hate mail and why go through all that?

The rise of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain weren't accidents. They were the logical products of an ideological movement whose leading voices place no value on governing experience, credible policy proposals, or any other quality needed to be a successful general election candidate or president; the rise of Rick Perry is no accident, but the logical product of a movement that identifies fellow travelers by their cultural cues and proclivity for zinging liberals, rather than the policies they implement and the principles that undergird them. Conservatives like to accuse liberals of condescending to regular Americans with their paternalistic policy proposals and machine politics; there is truth to the accusation, but only in the conservative movement will one find learned men and women who have convinced themselves that voters on the right can only be marshaled for electoral victory with the help of bombastic, intellectually dishonest blowhards, none of whom were on air when Reagan won.  

I'd advise Republican primary voters to cast their ballots for Jon Huntsman or Gary Johnson, two candidates I personally prefer to Barack Obama, depending on whether the voter in question leans socially conservative or libertarian, and on how much general election odds matter to them; and I'd urge everyone on the right who knows full well the pathologies that talk radio and cable news have introduced into movement conservatism to push back hard, your collegial positions in a decadent ideological movement be damned. Reasonable people can come to different conclusions. And I'd like Will, who is both reasonable and brilliant, to lay out his own. If not Romney, who? If there is no alternative worth endorsing, why does he think that is? Such is the burden of being one of the few elder statesmen of conservatism with any credibility left.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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