For the past several years, the conservative base of the Republican Party — which is now the bulk of the party — has been hoping for another 1964 convention. Aside from a few Ronald Reagan quips, there are few quotes cited more often and more approvingly in right-wing circles than Barry Goldwater's famous lines from his nomination acceptance speech that year: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
But the Etch-A-Sketch world of Mitt Romney's campaign is all about moderation in the pursuit of the presidency. And at last week's RNC, as Romney publicly divorced himself from those conservatives, his party's extremists in the defense of liberty — and in the defense of abortion bans, immigration control, voter ID, "traditional marriage," state sovereignty, tax reductions, and gun rights — succumbed peacefully, with polite applause.
The Romney campaign didn't want any of that nonsense to spoil their stage last week. Nor could it afford to let the convention showcase the rhetoric that has become a mainstay of Republican attacks on President Obama: harsher allegations about his heritage, his attempts to cede American sovereignty through the Law of the Sea and Small Arms treaties, creeping Sharia law, and the worse-than-Watergate "Fast and Furious" scandal.
Quite the opposite. The convention's main goal — even more important than the re-introduction of a more human-like candidate (see "Talking Politics," August 22) — was to persuade cautious voters that Romney's GOP has nothing to do with the harsh, ugly, uncompromising, intolerant party that they are used to seeing.
So conservative issues, and speakers identified with them, were kept from public view in Tampa last week.
Playing to the middle was a big risk for Romney to take. He needs the GOP's base to be rabid about voting for him. And he has spent the past five years diligently swearing to conservatives that despite his past moderation, if not outright apostasy, on issues like abortion and health care, he is now a true believer who will fight for their issues.
He bet that die-hard movement conservatives — the ones who have preached and voted ideological purity over electoral strategy time and time again — would be either dumb or desperate enough to dive under the bus for him last week, as he expelled them from his party, and Etch-A-Sketched their issues into oblivion.
As far as I could tell from my vantage point in Tampa, he was right.
I spoke with delegates in the hall, checked the output of popular conservative columnists and talk-show yakkers, and contacted quite a few right-wingers since the convention — many of whom were highly skeptical of Romney's fealty to their causes during the primaries — and heard almost no complaints about the convention at all.
They all dutifully distracted themselves all week by defending Romney and others from the various accusations and criticisms being leveled by Democrats, left-leaning pundits, and fact-checkers, like someone sticking up for the spouse who just served divorce papers.
Typical was RedState.com, run by Erick Erickson, who has led the charge for the GOP to run on conservative principles, or be reduced to "Democrats-lite" and certain electoral defeat. Not so during the convention; Erickson's posts praised every major speech, including "the best speech Mitt Romney has ever given," while focusing his ire entirely on the "liberal media," accusing it of "subtle racism," "beclowning itself," and being "in the tank for Obama."