Psst. Mitt Romney is some kind of conservative extremist.
President Barack Obama says so, as does Democratic national chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other talking heads of the political left. And they’ll continue chanting this ridiculous mantra right out of David Axelrod’s playbook.
Axelrod is the master media strategist playing Merlin to Obama’s Arthur. The former Chicago Tribune political writer swims just off Obama’s port bow, and for decades he’s applied the E-word to opposition candidates. Extreme this, extreme that, extreme, extreme, extreme. It’s a successful McCarthyism-of-the-left tactic, aimed at terrifying vanilla-minded independents. And it might succeed because Axelrod knows his business and because journalists are mainly in Obama’s camp.
But Romney as extreme? Please. Romney is as extreme as grilled cheese and cream of tomato soup.
He’s not a conservative, not conservative enough by a long shot. He’s a big-government Republican, and though he’d spend less than the big-big-big-government Democratic president, that doesn’t make Romney the next Ronald Reagan. It doesn’t make Romney an extremist, either.
Orwellian tricks work because once context is gone, all that’s left is this: a guy in a kilt, his face painted blue, telling the tribes that the king may take their lives, but he’ll never take their freedom.
Before emotion and tribalism overwhelms us, you might want to clear your head and get yourself a copy of this book from the libertarian Cato Institute: “Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution” by Michael D. Tanner.
You won’t see it flacked on Fox News or ripped on MSNBC. But it is clear about Republican failures and Republican drift. And if conservatives are truly interested in saving the country from the profligacy of Obama, they might want to ask themselves: What kind of government do we really want?
Published in 2007, Tanner’s book details the rise of the so-called big-government conservatives who came to their full power under former President George W. Bush, and how their success and ultimate catastrophe undermined the policies of traditional conservatives such as Reagan and Barry Goldwater.
Reagan cobbled together that winning coalition of neoconservatives (former far leftists who came to loathe communism), evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Later, under Bush II, the big-government conservatives spent us further into debt as the Christian right cheered. They spent like drunken sailors on ever-bigger government programs, from No Child Left Behind to nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the big-government conservatives were done and the country was exhausted, Obama was ready for them, and he spent even more.
“In the end, they didn’t stand for something different than the Democrats,” Tanner told me in a telephone interview. “Why would anyone vote for them? They looked like less confident Democrats at the end of the Bush administration. They were spending money just like the Democrats. Except they couldn’t seem to manage the war or a hurricane. I had to say to myself, why do I care if the Republicans win or the Democrats win? It didn’t seem to make much of a difference then.”
It didn’t make much of a difference to me, either. Stir that big-conservative intellectual drift into the lousy economy at the end of the Bush years and all that media giddiness over Obama as he became their secular messiah, and the result was inevitable.
But there may be some push-back. There is an internal GOP battle going on. And it’s not about delegate credentials at the Republican convention, where many in the establishment feed from the cupped palms of defense contractors.
“That’s a big split right now, that’s the next big battle,” Tanner said. “Between the deficit hawks, people who say we’ve got to cut spending across the board, and the neocons and defense hawks saying that defense has to be exempt. … I think the tea party is split about evenly.”
But Romney wants to spend and spend on defense. And Obama wants to spend and spend on social programs. Both buy votes with money you’re borrowing from China.
Naturally, the GOP doesn’t want any discussion of defense spending. They’re not passing out “Leviathan on the Right” in the convention goody bag. They want Romney wearing the conservative mantle, as long as it’s just a mantle and not a military budget hammer, as Karl Rove works to get Romney past a faltering and desperate Obama.
For their political differences, Rove and Axelrod are the same creature, experts in the dark arts. They give you a feeling and then they seize it to turn you this way or that. But Romney, a conservative extremist?
This presidential election isn’t about a conservative extremist. It’s about a few degrees of separation between two big-government pols. The battle over whether conservatism survives, whether it catches fire with young Americans who are now being fleeced, will come later, either within the GOP or outside the tent.
In the meantime? Please pass the grilled cheese. And cut the crusts off, will you?