‘The courage of his absence of convictions’

Perhaps the most talked-about column of the day is George Will’s piece on Mitt Romney, and for good reason. There’s quite a bit to chew on here.

Putting aside a couple of needlessly cheap shots at President Obama — the ATM joke was dumb six months ago, George, when Rush Limbaugh was the one pushing it — Will gives voice to conservatives who marvel at Romney’s vacuity, but aren’t sure what to do about it.

The driving anecdote is Romney’s inability to “enunciate a defensible, or even decipherable, ethanol policy.” As is generally the case, the former governor has taken a wide variety of positions, most of them contradictory, and none of them compelling from any perspective. Will argues, persuasively, that if Romney can’t even select a coherent position on ethanol — one of the easier issues to understand — no one can have any confidence in his ability to address far more complex challenges.

“A straddle is not a political philosophy,” Will explains, “it is what you do when you do not have one.” From there, Will notes Romney trying to take both sides — and oddly enough, neither side — of a few too many arguments, including the auto industry rescue and the ridiculous handling of Ohio’s ballot measures this week.

Romney, Will concludes, seems to “lack the courage of his absence of convictions.”

Romney, supposedly the Republican most electable next November, is a recidivist reviser of his principles who is not only becoming less electable; he might damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate. Republican successes down the ticket will depend on the energies of the Tea Party and other conservatives, who will be deflated by a nominee whose blurry profile in caution communicates only calculated trimming.

Republicans may have found their Michael Dukakis, a technocratic Massachusetts governor who takes his bearings from “data” (although there is precious little to support Romney’s idea that in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants is a powerful magnet for such immigrants) and who believes elections should be about (in Dukakis’s words) “competence,” not “ideology.” But what would President Romney competently do when not pondering ethanol subsidies that he forthrightly says should stop sometime before “forever”? Has conservatism come so far, surmounting so many obstacles, to settle, at a moment of economic crisis, for this?

I’d imagine the Romney campaign isn’t fond of Dukakis comparisons, though there are some parallels — socially-awkward Massachusetts governors, who aren’t especially well-liked, even by their own party.

But the larger point is more important. Will just doesn’t want the right to settle for the flip-flopping empty suit with an allergy to convictions and principles, simply because of some sense of “electability.”

And by all appearances, Will isn’t the only one. Indeed, it’s probably why Romney can have it all — the most money, the most endorsements, the most time on the campaign trail, the most name recognition — and still struggle to get above 23% in the polls. It’s very likely much of the party is asking the same question that anchored Will’s column: do conservative have to “settle … for this“?

Jon Chait had a good look at the causes for the right’s ennui.

Romney is running a purely results-based campaign against President Obama. His message is simply that things are bad and Obama hasn’t made them better. (Slogan: “Obama isn’t working.”) Romney’s theme elides why things are bad and says very little about what he intends to do to make them better, other than the fact that he, Mitt Romney, is the man to do it. […]

He wants to get through the primary with his ideological flexibility intact, unencumbered by unpopular commitments. He offers the right the least amount of substantive commitment, packaged in the maximum emotional packaging.

Conservatives want to win above all, but it’s not the only thing they want. They want to win a philosophically oriented campaign. They want to believe that Americans are voting for their party because they agree with it, not just because the other party was in office during an economic free fall.

Romney offers the party no such opportunity, but he’s leading a cover-your-eyes awful field that lacks a more credible alternative.

Over the next two or three months, the question the GOP will have to ask itself is whether their Dukakis is good enough.