Patrick Ruffini makes an articulate defense of flip-flopping:

It’s easy to turn a blind eye if someone’s flip-flopping in my direction, but that’s not it. Rather, it’s that at some point, you’ve gotta dance with the ones that brung ya. Said another way, the positions Romney et al. are taking now, in the most important campaign of their lives, are the ones they’re stuck with — whether they like it or not.After his public conversion and being pilloried as a flip-flopper, do you seriously think that Romney can walk back his pro-life position without destroying himself? Does anyone actually think that Romney would be so stupid as to advance public funding of elections after running as the enemy of BCRA? If Romney runs and manages to get elected as a conservative, why would he revert to a non-winning position?

I think that there’s a lot of validity to that. Indeed, recently, I have slowed in my attacks on Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping. And, frankly, I have never been bothered so much by the shifting positions of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, with a couple of exceptions.  Partly because they are relatively few and far between.

On immigration it is clear to me that all of our top-tier candidates with the exception, possibly but probably not, of Thompson would sign a bill different only in mostly insignificant minutaea from the one that the Senate is debating now. Rudy would add a totally unworkable exit surveillance program that would fail. Romney’s position seems to be to oppose the bill in name, but support it in substance, and just play politics. But they would sign it. So, for me, these people are playing politics, quoting Jeb Bush, "pounding their chests," on the 2nd most important moral issue that will be faced in the 110th Congress. (I find blather about amnesty to be deeply, deeply un-American and un-Christian. And, like Huckabee once said, I see more than a little racism in it. But that’s a digression, and I just had to get it off my chest.)

But, my point wasn’t flip-flopping. It was pandering. So far, the strategy that the various campaigns are following seems pretty clear:

  1. Giuliani will basically keep his old position and shade it a little. On immigration, he would add more surveillance, but maintain the "amnesty". On abortion, he doesn’t think that "strict constructionist" means "pro-life", but you’ll get "strict constructionist" judges, perhaps just like McCain would build a fence?
  2. McCain will just tell you what he thinks, and you may not like it. Unless, it seems, your positions resemble those of an average American rather than a partisan activist.
  3. Romney will mince his words so finely that you won’t know what his saying. His problem is that the base can’t figure out if he is selling conservatism or the same sort of mushy, corporate centrism that he and his father spent their entire careers celebrating. (Gee whiz, sound like Bush, the other Harvard MBA President? How’d that work out for ya?)
  4. Thompson. Who knows? He is still playing games and winking at everyone. I don’t have a clear idea what his policies are other than a sort of channeling of common sense and anger at Washington that you can project your hopes on to.

Where are the promises and commitments that Patrick is talking about? Where’s the substance?

Returning to my point in the previous post, my concluding question was:

Is that a healthy way for a political party or a political movement to behave? What does this say about our intellectual class?

The answer may be "yes". Our party seems to operate by deciding on what we think and then figuring out good ways to communicate it. Perhaps our primaries do not select the "most electable conservative" so much as they select the best communicator of conservative ideas. This would give us a sort of beauty pageant style because we are looking for advertising expertise. Reagan was "the great communicator." Bush’s "compassionate conservatism" bottled up mostly old ideas in significantly new packaging, but he did add in education and immigration reform. And isn’t a beauty pageant really what this primary is looking like?

(In contrast, the Demcrats seem to operate by using issues to build coalitions. Sometimes, but rarely, this looks reasonable. More often it just looks unprincipled, or worse, a sort of legalized public corruption of using the treasury to buy votes by passing legislation. Unions get to raise prices on consumers to cover for the fact that their workers don’t have the skills to compete. Trial lawyers get their broken legal system to get rich off of. Minority "leaders", but not their constituents, get on-the-books and off-the-books bribes and subsidies, allowing them to maintain their political machines but provide little-to-no value to their constituents other than identity politics. And more, more, more spending for this or that group that "needs" help. Etc.)

This works if the people, or even the base, really likes the package. But what is Thompson’s, and to some extent McCain’s, real message? That the people don’t trust Washington anymore. The base doesn’t trust the party. Whether it is spending, immigration, or Iraq, they just don’t believe any of us, Republican or Democrat. But most of "the movement" in Washington seems to think that if we recycle the packaging, that should be enough. But isn’t that transparently false?

At the same time, the partisan or ideological press seems to be sitting it out or shilling for their candidate of choice. Has anyone mentioned that 3 of the 4 major candidates do not fit the criteria for a pro-life endorsement in most states? At the very least, that is an interesting article on the transformation of the pro-life movement. Has anyone pointed out how clearly politically silly it would be to push to repeal BCRA? (And how much money some Romney think that a corporation ought to be able to give to the RNC anyways? $100m? $200m?)  Why do we tolerate people people attacking closing a tax loophole by calling it a tax increase and then praising Romney’s not cutting taxes by saying at all the revenue measures just closed loopholes? Is it now acceptable to be politically and/or intellectually empty as long as you are saying the right words?

If the pandering was accompanied by honesty, then perhaps I could stomach it. But as policy expertise and politics have been replaced by punditry, what are we left with? Who knows, in our consumerist age, perhaps marketing is all it takes. Perhaps the inspiration for our candidates should be Tommy Hilfiger for whom the only difference between a golf player and a gang banger is how you cut the ads.