Mitt Romney has now been moved to life support — pulse has been detected — having notched one of the ugliest wins in American primary politics. In Michigan, the state where he grew up and where his father served as governor, he only narrowly defeated an insignificant one-term U.S. senator whose extraordinarily right-wing and often curious positions raised questions from party insiders about the very nature of the Republican Party.
A win, though, is a win, even against a pitifully weak opponent, and with what appears to be a faint breeze now blowing in Romney's sails, he might finally find what looks like momentum. He needs it.
Everywhere one looks, storm clouds gather. Looming large is the increasing perception that the Grand Old Party, which half a century ago was personified by the steady and reliable management of Dwight D. Eisenhower in cahoots with East Coast financial markets and the Boy Scouts in Norman Rockwell paintings, is now a breeding ground for lunatics, crackpots, conspiracy theorists, and my crazy great uncle Ralph, currently down in the basement, over by the shovels, plotting his own candidacy.
Three of the four remaining candidates — Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — espouse a variety of hotly disputed, if not outright extreme, positions. These include a return to the gold standard, not going to college because of its elitism and liberalism, stronger relations between the White House and the pope, un-separating the separation between church and state, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, bombing Iran, eliminating health insurance, and more. It grows crazier, Alice in Wonderland-like, unrecognizable.
And it's not just that their positions are extreme and far-flung. A number of the things they say also demonstrate stupid politics and an unwillingness to shut up. The candidates argue the auto bailout was a bad thing, as is the UAW, notwithstanding that the American auto industry finds itself on stronger footing than at any time in the last 20 years. What say you to that? Of all the discussions ongoing, my personal favorite is probably the recent back and forth on contraception. Santorum has taken the position that contraception is bad. Huh? As Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos told Maureen Dowd in The New York Times: “Republicans being against sex is not good. ... Sex is popular."
Before exiting the race, Michele Bachmann's whoppers were well known. At any other time in American history, Bachmann would have been viewed as off her rocker, but this election cycle found her positioned as a credible candidate for commander-in-chief. Texas Gov. Rick Perry could often be heard stating that there were grounds that favored the right of Texas to secede from the United States. This is rational? At the least, it's stupid politics.
Which is why, when I listen to the Republican candidates in the debates, I often see their arguments firing out into the universe on a moonbeam shot to nowhere. You can almost hear the chatter on Mars: "Roger that, Galactica, we got incoming Republicans." All of this at some point is likely to be rejected as unfit for consumption by the mass market, right?
You get what you wish for in life. The Republican Party made two extraordinary bargains with the devil, both of which are proving enormously difficult to deal with in the long-term.
First, the party made a pact with values voters — mostly conservative religious denominations — and began to inflame issues that appeal to them: abortion, gay rights, prayer in schools. Layered on top of these particular issues was a more general understanding: a sense that our appreciation of an ineffable God — which involves a lot of mystery and faith and, well, romanticism — trumps the empiricism of the modern world. The white working classes, particularly from the more conservative South, fled to the Republicans. What the Republicans got were a lot of faithful, committed voters. What the Republicans did not get were informed political consumers interested in the truth.
And so, as Karl Rove allegedly told writer Ron Suskind, there are people who live "in what we call the reality-based community," which is composed of people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." But Rove added, "That's not the way the world really works any more." It really didn't matter if Republicans described a world that was real or not. They could create their own world. People would believe the Republicans because, well, they were people of faith. Let the whoppers commence.
The second pact the Republicans made to assure their dominance was to equate government with evil. Government is bad. Taxes are bad. Politicians are bad. After being fed such a steady diet of anti-government philosophy, the nation would only reject people who see government as decent (i.e., Democrats). Those who hate government — i.e., Republicans — would prosper.
A longtime Republican congressional staffer named Mike Lofgren recently decided to quit his job, at which point he wrote a wonderful piece on his party. Wrote Lofgren: "It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
That about sums it up. Having preached a gospel not tethered to reality, and having preached a gospel aiming to destroy government, the chickens have come home to roost. When you say something long enough, it's not just the people who come to believe you. You start to believe it yourself.
Which brings us back to Mitt Romney.
Of all the candidates, Romney is the exception. He is the one who is all about empiricism and a fact-based world. Sure, the guy seems about to jump out of his skin half the time. Sure, he can say some stupid things reflecting the world as seen by the 1 percent.
But a President Romney has vowed to bring a ruthless empiricism to his administration. It comports nicely with his story (Harvard MBA, private equity, running the Olympics well, etc.). Which may explain why, on the best of days, he is only able to get 30 to 40 percent support from voters in his party. His wins in Michigan and Arizona this week are fortuitous, but they expose such a terrific fracture among Republicans that it will remain difficult for him to find solid footing. The dry argument he makes for efficiency flies headlong into the drama of his party of crazies.