Today I read about the eightieth column (and maybe the twentieth just in the Wall Street Journal) from a conservative telling Mitt Romney he has to “go large” and get more radical and make the election a clear choice between the status quo and a “reform” agenda aimed at getting rid of the New Deal and Great Society and generally turning things upside down. That was hardly remarkable. What was interesting was that its author was Fred Barnes.

Unless he’s changed very lately, ol’ Fred is the ultimate loyal GOP foot soldier. I’m old enough to remember when he hadn’t taken the plunge into Republicanism, but was a confirmed conservative-evangelical anti-choicer, whose ultimate loyalities eventually drove him to a very predictable partisanship. Once Fred turned, he stayed turned, and he’s been the best friend any GOP pol could desire.

Back in 2000, when his Weekly Standard colleagues Bill Kristol and David Brooks were off on their “national greatness conservatism” bender with John McCain, it was Barnes who stuck with the conventional candidate Bush. I recall being at one of those bipartisan think-tank gab-fests in early 2004, and in mid-talk, Barnes’ cell-phone kept going off. “Karl Rove really wants to talk to you,” jibed one of the participants, and even Fred laughed.

So he’s just not the kind of guy who is likely to lob grenades into his “own” camp. And as recently as September 24, he was penning a column blaming Obama’s lead mostly on media bias and the power of incumbency.

His latest essay is a pretty clear sign that if Romney plays small-ball tonight, and it doesn’t work, the entire conservative media universe is going to start preparing itself to blame Mitt for an eventual loss due to his stubborn refusal to run as an updated version of Barry Goldwater. When you are a Republican presidential candidate and you lose Fred Barnes, you better hope you know something he doesn’t know.

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.