What Republican Elites Can Learn From the Arizona Debate

There's nothing to be done about the candidates. But the rhetoric on the right? It cost the GOP Wednesday. Its voters have been lied to for too long.

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On an Arizona stage, clad in suits and ties and American flag lapel pins, the remaining GOP candidates debated for the 20th time Wednesday, when voters got perhaps their last chance to see Mitt, Rick, Ron, and Newt taking questions from timid Massachusetts moderate John King. The near consensus among commentators? A certain ornery, sweater-vested Pennsylvanian lost. "Rick Santorum's night was defined by explaining why he voted for things he opposed," National Review's Rich Lowry observed. "He didn't know when to let go on the earmark discussion, which he couldn't possibly win.... Overall, he was too defensive, too insider, too complicated."

I agree. But let's be honest: Journalists who've watched all these debates can't grok the mindset of an undecided voter who just started paying attention. Trust me, I tried my hardest. But on health care, we've heard Mitt Romney defend his Massachusetts bill on countless occasions. Hearing it again was like getting through the first level of a familiar video game. Familiar stuff happened. Then resident Lakitu Ron Paul reappeared to toss out his spiky bits of chaos. In what followed we didn't learn anything new about the candidates, or the horse race. What did Michiganders take from the evening? Who knows? 


There were, however, lessons the GOP could learn.

Consider the earmark. It's long been a bogeyman of the conservative movement, and some of the Tea Party backlash against earmarking has been justified: Wasteful spending and illegitimate giveaways to special interests passed into law via the mechanism. Shedding sunlight on the process to reform it was overdue.

What never made sense was the idea that earmarks are a major cause of America's spending problem, or that issuing them automatically marked a legislator as corrupt, or that if only they could be reformed, then our deficit would be significantly shrunk -- it was convenient to pretend that those things were true, but there is a cost to demagoguery, and Wednesday part of the bill came due. On a night when the rank and file got their last real look at the candidates in a crucial primary season, earmarks were being used as a proxy for who was most conservative.

Some spectacular cognitive dissonance followed.

The most fiscally conservative candidate on stage, Ron Paul, is a principled defender of earmarks. And the metric isn't very useful for comparing a former senator to a former governor either. But it's a metric that a lot of conservatives have been conditioned to emphasize far more than is justified by reality. The same can be said about the debt ceiling. Raised for many years without controversy, it emerged during the Obama Administration as a defining issue for reasons more opportunistic than substantive, and was emphasized to a truly indefensible degree.

If votes to raise the debt ceiling were really a cause of our fiscal disease, rather than an effect of it, perhaps it would've made sense to make it a defining symbol. As it happened, the symbol was more convenient than justified. But that hasn't stopped Romney from opportunistically exploiting the issue, as if it's a good predictor of whether he or Santorum will be more fiscally conservative. Why should casual observers think otherwise? It certainly accords with what they were being told when the debt-ceiling vote was being used as a cudgel against President Obama.

It's a familiar pattern.

For fleeting, short-term gain, conservative elites mislead their own, blowing small things up into big things and spending little if any time confronting what really needs to be done to shrink government. It's little surprise that in the long run, the conservative movement's avowed goals are never achieved, even when the GOP wins. Politicians are always going to be opportunistic demagogues. But there's no defensible reason for so many of the right's intellectuals to go along. You'll know things have gotten better when future Republican pols are forced to focus on more useful indicators when discussing who among them is the more fiscally conservative champion. 

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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