Mitt Romney has a gift for words â€” self-destructive words. On Friday he did it again, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was a â€œseverely conservative governor.â€
As Molly Ball of The Atlantic pointed out, Mr. Romney â€œdescribed conservatism as if it were a disease.â€ Indeed. Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, provided a list of words that most commonly follow the adverb â€œseverelyâ€; the top five, in frequency of use, are disabled, depressed, ill, limited and injured.
Thatâ€™s clearly not what Mr. Romney meant to convey. Yet if you look at the race for the G.O.P. presidential nomination, you have to wonder whether it was a Freudian slip. For something has clearly gone very wrong with modern American conservatism.
Start with Rick Santorum, who, according to Public Policy Polling, is the clear current favorite among usual Republican primary voters, running 15 points ahead of Mr. Romney. Anyone with an Internet connection is aware that Mr. Santorum is best known for 2003 remarks about homosexuality, incest and bestiality. But his strangeness runs deeper than that.
For example, last year Mr. Santorum made a point of defending the medieval Crusades against the â€œAmerican left who hates Christendom.â€
Historical issues aside (hey, what are a few massacres of infidels and Jews among friends?), what was this doing in a 21st-century campaign?
Nor is this only about sex and religion: he has also declared that climate change is a hoax, part of a â€œbeautifully concocted schemeâ€ on the part of â€œthe leftâ€ to provide â€œan excuse for more government control of your life.â€ You may say that such conspiracy-theorizing is hardly unique to Mr. Santorum, but thatâ€™s the point: tinfoil hats have become a common, if not mandatory, G.O.P. fashion accessory.
Then thereâ€™s Ron Paul, who came in a strong second in Maineâ€™s caucuses despite widespread publicity over such matters as the racist (and conspiracy-minded) newsletters published under his name in the 1990s and his declarations that both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act were mistakes. Clearly, a large segment of his partyâ€™s base is comfortable with views one might have thought were on the extreme fringe.
Finally, thereâ€™s Mr. Romney, who will probably get the nomination despite his evident failure to make an emotional connection with, well, anyone. The truth, of course, is that he was not a â€œseverely conservativeâ€ governor. His signature achievement was a health reform identical in all important respects to the national reform signed into law by President Obama four years later. And in a rational political world, his campaign would be centered on that achievement.
But Mr. Romney is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, and whatever his personal beliefs may really be â€” if, indeed, he believes anything other than that he should be president â€” he needs to win over primary voters who really are severely conservative in both his intended and unintended senses.
So he canâ€™t run on his record in office. Nor was he trying very hard to run on his business career even before people began asking hard (and appropriate) questions about the nature of that career.
Instead, his stump speeches rely almost entirely on fantasies and fabrications designed to appeal to the delusions of the conservative base. No, President Obama isnâ€™t someone who â€œbegan his presidency by apologizing for America,â€ as Mr. Romney declared, yet again, a week ago. But this â€œFour-Pinocchio Falsehood,â€ as the Washington Post Fact Checker puts it, is at the heart of the Romney campaign.
How did American conservatism end up so detached from, indeed at odds with, facts and rationality? For it was not always thus. After all, that health reform Mr. Romney wants us to forget followed a blueprint originally laid out at the Heritage Foundation!
My short answer is that the long-running con game of economic conservatives and the wealthy supporters they serve finally went bad.
For decades the G.O.P. has won elections by appealing to social and racial divisions, only to turn after each victory to deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy â€” a process that reached its epitome when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as Americaâ€™s defender against gay married terrorists, then announced that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security.
Over time, however, this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum â€” and now the party elite has lost control.
The point is that todayâ€™s dismal G.O.P. field â€” is there anyone who doesnâ€™t consider it dismal? â€” is no accident. Economic conservatives played a cynical game, and now theyâ€™re facing the blowback, a party that suffers from â€œsevereâ€ conservatism in the worst way. And the malady may take many years to cure.