Conor Friedersdorf has an interesting response to Erick Erickson’s takedown of Mitt Romney. He argues, in essence, that many movement conservatives prefer pandering to the movement — in the form of throwing red meat to the base or heaping praise on its institutions — to a solid record of conservative accomplishment, or even a good current platform of conservative policy proposals.
Friedersdorf mentions Mitch Daniels, but focuses on Jon Huntsman. Noting Erickson’s contention that Huntsman’s economic plan and deficit reduction proposals are surprisingly the most conservative, Friedersdorf concludes:
So let’s sum it all up. If elected, Huntsman would likely behave in a way true to his relatively conservative record in Utah. Erickson likes his proposals on most issues, including the ones he finds most important. But in order to take Huntsman seriously, Erickson is going to need him to a) hire a new campaign strategist; b) make different jokes; and c) send different Tweets.
This is frivolity.
Well. I do agree that conservatives at times place too much emphasis on red state identity politics and liberal-baiting at the expense of substantive conservatism. This pattern developed during George W. Bush’s presidency because after a certain point there was a lack of substantive conservatism and this chest-beating was the only remaining way to bond with the Republican base.
Mitt Romney emerged as the main conservative alternative to John McCain in the 2008 primaries because he said the right conservative things and kissed the right conservative rings in the four years leading up to the campaign. But his ultimate failure to consolidate the conservative base back then — and his great difficulty in doing so now against an arguably weaker field — shows the limits of this strategy. Whatever you want to say about Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain, they appear authentic in a way that Romney does not. And you can’t say Romney’s actual record hasn’t mattered to the grassroots, even when big conservative names were endorsing him three years ago.
But a candidate is also to some extent responsible for the kind of campaign they run and the way they choose to present themselves to voters. This is especially true when you are not well known, and to the extent Republican voters do know you, their recollection is that you took an appointment from President Obama and feuded with some conservatives in your home state.
It isn’t Erick Erickson’s fault that Huntsman (or more likely, John Weaver) decided to run against large parts of the conservative base (on issues that are themselves a bit frivolous) rather than emphasize his conservative record or platform. It was Huntsman who decided to appeal to the media rather than the Republican base, even though the media was sure to discover his right-wing cred and turn on him if he ever won the nomination.
Maybe it is unfair that an ambassadorship is more disqualifying than, say, providing the blueprint for Obamacare. It would surely be nice if people paid more attention to policy than personality. But the vast majority of voters of every ideological stripe make a personal assessment of candidates first and look at what they’d do about Medicare or Afghanistan second. To ignore this is to cut yourself off from politics as actually practiced in this country.