Why It's OK Not to Love Mitt Romney—or Barack Obama

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For once, Rush Limbaugh is right: it's good that conservatives aren't crushing on their presumptive nominee. Look what happened when they loved George W. Bush.

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Over at Rush Limbaugh's radio program, the influential host is doing his best to persuade his listeners that it doesn't matter if they don't love Mitt Romney. "It's not a negative. There aren't very many political candidates that have that kind of passionate support. The last candidate who was loved in this country, for example, was Obama in 2008. And my point is: We don't want that," he said. "We don't want blind, slavish attachment to people because we can make of them whatever we want them to be."

Lest anyone think that he was implicitly criticizing conservative love for Ronald Reagan, he added that "Clinton was loved, and look how easy it was for him to mislead everybody. I don't like this notion that we fall in love with candidates. My point is we need to be adults about this. We loved Reagan and we still do. But Reagan was not a manipulative, insincere, conniving president. The love that people had for Reagan was a genuine love, not a celebrity idolatry. People loved Reagan deeply as a man, as a human being."

In a talk radio battle between logical consistency and Reagan nostalgia the latter is bound to triumph, but Limbaugh actually makes a sound point: Americans aren't well-served by making idols of candidates. Liberals have learned that lesson while putting up with Obama's betrayals, even as the few liberal groups that pressed him most ruthlessly won concessions. And conservatives? What Limbaugh never mentions, because he has no interest in self-criticism or reflection, is that conservatives learned that lesson -- or should have -- during the aughts. The fact that Ronald Reagan is the only GOP president who is today popular may make it seem as though the right has only crushed on successful leaders. But the conservative movement actually made an idol of George W. Bush before deciding that he name should no longer be uttered.

The classic example was written in 2005 by Powerline's John Hinderaker:

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.    

Lest you think him an outlier, or that the hard right has learned its lesson with time, here's Limbaugh in September of 2011:

George W. Bush, who by the way stands tall in retrospect. 10 years, not one attack. Great statesmanship. If somebody told me today they wanted to put Bush's face on Mount Rushmore I'd be in there supporting it.

The maddening things about hagiography, whether of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or Mayor Rudolf Giuliani or Barack Obama, is its impracticality. There is, or so I understand, some psychological utility for boosters of national leaders. But praise, whether deserved or not, doesn't make a leader more effective; and excessive praise, which is always paired with an aversion to criticizing, always makes leaders less accountable and responsive to their constituents.

With Mitt Romney as the nominee, Rush Limbaugh sees the value of holding his party's nominee at arm's length. If only he'd remember that lesson when he talks about George W. Bush, Paul Ryan or whoever the next object of conservative fan-boy affection turns out to be. (Marco Rubio is my guess.) Fortunately the left is unlikely to be gaga over Obama if he wins a second term.

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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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