One of the inherent functions of the MSM “conservative columnist” is to find novel, reasonable-sounding arguments to support atavistic policies and politics. David Brooks, for example, is best known for his athletic ability to approach a subject from a lofty non-partisan perspective before skydiving to the ground at a point that often happens to coincide with the tactical positioning of the Republican Party.

The other New York Times house conservative, Ross Douthat, is usually a bit less predictable in his approach, if not his conclusions. Today he offers one of those counter-intutive “sympathy for the devil” columns that are supposed to get people to rethink their preconceived ideas on a subject. Playing off Tim Noah’s recent TNR piece on “crankocrats”–billionaire wingnuts who are tossing their spare change with sometimes massive effect into the 2012 presidential contest–Douthat suggests the cause of small-d democracy is being valuably promoted by Foster Friess and Sheldon Adelson, major benefactors of super-PACs supporting, respectively, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich:

[C]onsider what would have happened without the rich cranks. Mitt Romney, who attracted far more big-money support overall than any of his rivals, would have probably followed up his near-win in Iowa and his victory in New Hampshire with an easy win in South Carolina, and the primary campaign would have been, to all intents and purposes, finished after that. Instead of having the Republican nomination decided by millions of voters nationwide, it would have been decided by the voters in just three states – and, of course, by Romney’s sturdy donor base.

An extended primary season, which has featured competitive races in dozens of states instead of just a few, hasn’t necessarily been good for the Republican Party’s general election prospects. But it has produced a far more small-d democratic outcome than the alternative universe where Adelson and Friess stayed on the sidelines and Romney wrapped things up early. Because of their donations, the frontrunner has had to confront actual voters day after day and week after week, in Wisconsin and Nevada and Alabama and everywhere in between.

The glaring problem with Douthat’s analysis, of course, is that Mitt Romney has benefitted from “cranky” Super-PAC support a lot more than his rivals. According to the Sunlight Foundation’s comprehensive tracking of campaign expenditures, as of the end of February, the last FEC filing date, Mitt’s Super-PAC, Restore Our Future, had shelled out over $40 million, as compared to $17 million for Gingrich’s Winning Our Future and $7 million for Santorum’s Red, White and Blue Fund. The gap between Team Mitt and the others undoubtedly grew much greater since then, as Adelson closed his checkbook and Restore Our Future swamped Red, White and Blue by huge margins in state after state.

Maybe Mitt would have won earlier without Super-PACs existing, but that’s hardly a certainty; more likely, Gingrich would have folded earlier and Santorum would not have had to compete with him for conservative votes in the South and Midwest. The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the Super-PACs helped make the GOP competition exceedingly negative, and in particular, kept Romney nominally separate from the endless bashing of Gingrich and Santorum for insufficient conservatism that might have been significantly less credible coming from Mitt’s campaign itself.

But I’ll give Douthat credit for making me think about this alternative history of the GOP race. As is often the case, however, his premises don’t lead very reliably to his preferred conclusions.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.