I’m not sure which is worse: the idea that we’re all supposed to care whether or not Mitt Romney adequately knocks down the crazy every time it’s thrust in his face…or the fact that the crazy is constantly thrust in his face (and that he and other Republican leaders encourage it).

As you may have heard, the latest is that at a Romney rally today someone mentioned (sort of as an aside, in response apparently to someone else shouting it out) that Barack Obama should be tried for treason, and Romney responded by entirely ignoring it.

I think Greg gets it about right in the post I linked to there. Both parties are going to do this sort of “gotcha” game in response to stupid things their supporters say. Given the current state of things, Republicans are saying more stupid things, just as they did in 2008. The gotcha game is silly, and “winning” a news cycle over it is probably a complete waste of time. But at the same time, yeah, this stuff doesn’t come out of nowhere — and Republican party elites who foster it, encourage it, and tolerate it do deserve to be called out.

And meanwhile, what Romney did say in answering the question was just about as goofy as what he didn’t say. The question was about Obama supposedly not governing within the Constitution, and Romney, in answering that, made sure to say that in his view the Constitution and the Declaration were “not just brilliant, but probably inspired.” Which is standard rhetoric these days within the GOP — it used to be good enough to just emphasize the Declaration (because it specifically invokes God), but now one has to pretend to believe that the United States is all special and all (that is, “exceptional”) because God wanted it that way. You know — in the old days, we would call that a “dog whistle” and move on, but I watched an awful lot of GOP debates this year, and the truth is that the presidential nomination was about 90% dog whistle and 10% substance. And that’s probably a generous reading.

So the gotcha stuff is junk politics; no one cares, or should care, whether Romney is quick on his feet in denouncing slurs that his supporters make. But pointing that the Republican Party actively encourages the crazy, and that Romney’s campaign rhetoric is often thinly translated versions of the crazy, whether it’s the “apology tour” or, as Greg points out, the loony claim that “Obama favors government enforced ‘equal outcomes’ and wants to ensure that everyone in American society reaps the ‘same rewards’?” Yes, the press should be doing pointing that out.

After all, if everything that Mitt Romney, Republican Members of Congress, and the other Republican presidential candidates say about Barack Obama was true, then Obama should be tried for treason. It’s that kind of rhetoric that’s the problem, not Romney’s immediate response to what someone says at a rally.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.