Much of the conservative punditocracy has declared that Mitt Romney is the consensus conservative candidate. If he is, he's the least consensual consensus candidate in modern political history -- the man can't break 25 percent with a sledgehammer. While his supporters shout from the hills that Romney essentially tied for the win in Iowa, his glass remains three-quarters empty, with no-name Rick Santorum winning as much of the vote, Ron Paul winning nearly as much, and Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry combining for as much. The last time a Republican candidate captured the nomination for the presidency by winning Iowa with this low a vote total, his name was Bob Dole. A couple of years later, he was hawking Viagra.
Nonetheless, the word is out: The fix is in. Unbelievably, not a single anti-Romney television ad was run in the state of Iowa. And while a few conservatives -- including yours truly -- have come out and opposed nominating the most left-wing Republican in the field, many more conservatives have endorsed Romney's candidacy.
Now there are good reasons for supporting Romney in the GOP nomination race. Some people argue that he has the most appeal to independents, because he is the least openly conservative. Others state that he doesn't have personal baggage and is thus less likely to become fodder for late night talk shows. Still others contend that his vanilla personality means that the focus of the election will remain on President Obama and such focus will make Romney a shoe-in. Finally, there are those who say that Romney has had his convenient road-to-Damascus conversion to conservatism and we should now trust him.
These arguments, at the very least, are understandable. What is not understandable is the contention by so many conservatives that Romney's record is conservative. It isn't. He's always been an advocate of a carefully managed, large government rather than a freedom-ensuring small one; his record in Massachusetts shows him to be an advocate for liberal policies like the individual mandate and activist judges. There can be no doubt that among all the Republicans running, his record is the most left. Even Jon Huntsman looks like Ronald Reagan next to Romney.
Why, then, do so many conservatives say that Romney represents true conservatism?
Because it's convenient.
Whenever there is an open Republican race, many professional conservatives fear alienating the candidates. Instead of holding their feet to the fire, they find the person most likely to win and back him. If that person happens not to be particularly conservative, the pundits rewrite conservatism to fit the candidate. This preserves their access and their credibility with their audience. As professional prognosticators, it certainly looks better to have endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 than Steve Forbes. If pundits can convince us that not only did they support George W. Bush but also that George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was actually conservative rather than warmed over big government liberalism, they can eat their cake and have it, too.
This is deeply problematic, of course, since the professional pundit class is supposed to stand for something other than convenience. Yes, defeating horrible politicians like Barack Obama is the top goal -- but that doesn't justify redefining conservatism entirely. Support Mitt Romney if you must -- but don't urinate on our leg and tell us that it's raining. Mitt Romney is not a conservative. If you want to support him, go right ahead. But don't lie about your rationale. It undermines the conservative standard.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., long ago pointed out that folks who cannot live by certain standards tend to undermine those standards. When the standards are lowered, the behavior that such standards were originally intended to stop increases dramatically. In the case of unwed motherhood, for example, when society ceases to consider such behavior morally wrong, the behavior increases exponentially.
The same holds true in politics. When we deliberately broaden conservatism to encompass government-forced purchase of health insurance or raising taxes or appointing liberal judges or enforcing same-sex marriage or using taxpayer money to bail out business or pushing trade barriers, we destroy conservatism from within. If we do that, why would our politicians even bother to pay lip service to the standard?
They wouldn't. And we'd end up with ever more liberal nominees. Which is precisely what has happened since the halcyon days of Reagan.
Standards matter. If you want to support Mitt Romney, that's your prerogative. But don't sell out conservative principles in the process.