Erick Erickson Rewards Pandering at the Expense of Conservatism

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The Red State founder thinks Jon Huntsman has the best economic plan. But he's upset that liberals like his tweets and jokes.

Jon Huntsman announcement - Shannon Stapleton Reuters - banner.jpg

In Mitt Romney's efforts to win over conservatives, Tuesday wasn't a good day: even as Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann struggled to remain credible, Red State Founder Erick Erickson, a bellwether of grassroots opinion, published an item on his influential site titled "Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins." It's a brutal assessment. "Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee," Erickson writes. "And his general election campaign will be an utter disaster for conservatives as he takes the GOP down with him and burns up what it means to be a conservative in the process."

Conservatives have legitimate reasons to question whether Romney would keep his promises. He'll say almost anything to get elected. It is healthy to be dissatisfied with a party that offers him up as its nominee, and that lack of enthusiasm could contribute to his defeat in a general election. The irony, of course, is that Erickson and those who share his attitudes toward politics bear significant blame for Romney's seeming inevitability. What do I mean? Permit me to explain.

The GOP field is weak largely because Red State-style conservatives have elevated flawed candidates. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain were all enthusiastically embraced as potential nominees, before anyone thought very much about their flaws, almost entirely on the basis of their success signalling that they'd zing liberals, antagonize the media, and hate on Barack Obama. Their elevation might have been harmless, except that at the same time, Mitch Daniels, a popular governor with solid conservative credentials, was discouraged from running because he was too conciliatory in his rhetoric. Tim Pawlenty went nowhere because he wasn't exciting enough for the base. Chris Christie was shown that an occasional heretic like him wouldn't be able to maintain good feeling around his candidacy if he declared. And Jon Huntsman was totally ignored despite his genuine conservatism.

Let's focus on Huntsman, because the way Erickson has treated his candidacy is the quintessential example of what the grassroots right is doing wrong. It's all summed up in another item he posted on Tuesday. "I could not support Jon Huntsman ever for what many consider a very esoteric reason," Erickson said. "He went to work for the President of the United States and while working for the President of the United States decided to run against his boss." Really? Even though he always planned to be ambassador to China for just two years, did a good job, and served in a diplomatic position that in no way requires or implies that he supported politically the man who appointed him? I'd have thought that "if I appoint you ambassador you won't run against me in the future" would be exactly the sort of Washington insider backscratching Erickson would abhor. Public servants owe loyalty to the people, not their bosses.

Alas, the worst is yet to come. 

"I know nothing about Jon Huntsman," Erickson acknowledges later in the post, itself a discrediting admission for a guy who wants to influence the Republican Party's nominating process. "But unlike Mitt Romney, Huntsman is not running away from his record as Governor," Erickson continues. "He has some moderate to liberal tendencies of gay marriage and the environment, but he's never flip-flopped on abortion, the need for tax cuts, etc. I still find it shocking that the guy running as the liberal in the race, or at least the media accepted moderate, came up withe boldest, most conservative economic plan. His deficit reduction plan alone makes all the others look weak."

Isn't that something?

By Erickson's lights, Huntsman is more reliable and substantively conservative -- he even has the best position on taxes, job growth, and deficit reduction -- yet he is still said to be "running as the liberal in the race." Yes, I know what Erickson means. Huntsman has deliberately levied criticisms at fellow conservatives, been conciliatory toward the media, and adopted the rhetorical style of a centrist, in much the same manner as Daniels. What I wonder is why Erickson puts style over substance in placing him on the political spectrum, and deciding whether or not he is worthy of support.

As if to underscore the absurdity of his criteria, Erickson goes on to say that "to even get me to half-way take him seriously... I think he'd have to get rid of Jon Weaver and show conservatives he actually is a conservative. Thus far, from his jokes at debates to his tweets, he's come across as condescending. But he does like Nirvana. That's something."

So let's sum it all up. If elected, Huntsman would likely behave in a way true to his relatively conservative record in Utah. Erickson likes his proposals on most issues, including the ones he finds most important. But in order to take Huntsman seriously, Erickson is going to need him to a) hire a new campaign strategist; b) make different jokes; and c) send different Tweets.

This is frivolity.

And if you want to know why the GOP is stuck with a bunch of frivolous candidates versus Mitt Romney, and why Romney will likely win, that is why. Even the most knowledgeable, allegedly savvy representative of the grassroots won't elevate the substantively more conservative candidate... unless he panders. And slakes Erickson's immature thirst for liberal bashing. Meanwhile, Erickson is complaining that he's going to get stuck with a guy that panders. Guess why, Erick?

That's what you reward!

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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