Jonah Goldberg

What's both remarkable and dangerous about this fluid moment in presidential politics is that one can still remain loyal to the Buckley rule and support a very conservative candidate -- at least for now. The weaker Obama gets, the more comfortable the conservative rank and file feel moving as rightward as possible. When the incumbent looks like a loser no matter what, electability loses its premium. That the GOP just swapped Pawlenty for Perry is testament to that fact, and far more significant than Bachmann's straw poll victory.

(For the record, the straw poll is a really stupid fundraising stunt for the Iowa GOP. It's primarily geared to candidates with support from one of two constituencies: the passionate and the easily bribed. Ron Paul's second-place finish proves that it's in no meaningful way a real poll, as his supporters are akin to "Battlestar Galactica" loyalists at a "Star Trek" convention, incapable of winning many converts and themselves unwilling to switch teams. Still, the straw poll is a fixture of the landscape, and candidates must deal with it.)

The danger isn't so much that GOP voters will reject the Buckley rule but that they will think that almost any conservative will be electable given how weak Obama seems. After all, independents don't subscribe to the Buckley rule -- because they're independents. If the economy improves or Obama gains traction, a Bachmann candidacy could resemble Goldwater '64 more than Reagan '80.

"Yes, people feel it now, the fire," Bachmann proclaimed in a dramatic stage whisper Sunday night in Waterloo, Iowa. "They recognize that Obama can be beat."

True enough, but fire is opportunistic. It doesn't discriminate in whom it burns.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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