The phrase “compassionate conservatism” was coined by Doug Wead. When Wead ran for Congress in Arizona's 6th congressional district, despite having a portrait of Barry Goldwater hanging in his office, the former Republican presidential candidate instead endorsed Karan English, his Democratic opponent.
Karan English won. Doug Wead lost. The poisonous outcome of that election tore apart the Arizona Republican Party with accusations of disloyalty and treason. But there was a generational gap between what the Republican Party had been and what it was in 1992. To Goldwater, Wead’s religiosity was alien. But a year after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Republican Party was more concerned with the moral state of the country than the Cold War. And this conflict reflected the face of a changing GOP.
Such conflicts can be bitter and ugly, they may turn villains into heroes and heroes into villains, but they are also a clarifying reality check warning a political movement that conditions outside have changed.
Only four years have passed since Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama. But the Republican Party that Mitt Romney represented in his speech attacking Trump appears to be as mutually alien as Wead’s religious values were to Goldwater. Romney’s business boosterism was a quaint relic even during the election when he ran on it. In a race dominated by anti-establishment candidates and economic turmoil, it is for all intents and purposes an echo from another era and a telegram from another time.
The premise that Mitt Romney was the GOP’s elder statesman was always a queasy one. We are now in the midst of a pitched party civil war that has demonstrated all too well that there is no such thing.
Mitt Romney’s speech was less an attack on Trump than an affirmation of the values of the old party that he believed in. Having once courted Trump’s support and endorsement, he is lashing out over the perceived betrayal of those values by a political supporter who once appeared to uphold them and who he suspects still does.
This is not a temperament issue. Christie was a top establishment choice during the last election, despite sharing Trump’s temperament. Everything he has since revealed himself to be was well known to all at the time. And so this ultimately comes down to politics. It comes down to a question of who is betraying whom. Is Trump betraying the Republican Party or is Romney betraying Trump?
Romney had not been repelled by Trump’s personality or lifestyle when seeking his support. Like Hillary, it must be asked, if Trump was not too repellent to take money from, is he really too repellent to vote for? Was Trump really meant to play Shylock, staying behind to donate to candidates, helping buy elections without actually being allowed to run for office?
If Trump’s values are poor, then what are Romney’s values for accepting his support? If Trump truly embodies crony capitalism, as Romney charges, then doesn’t Romney also embody it?
Trump has said that he was buying politicians? Didn’t Romney then allow Trump to buy him?
Any indictment of Trump is also an indictment of the Republicans and Democrats now denouncing him. If Trump is an opportunist, didn’t they aid him in taking advantage of those opportunities? If he is a crony capitalist, didn’t they sell off their investment in a clean “capitalism” to him?
You can’t argue against corruption, if you got into business with it. Attacking Trump’s business dealings, ethics and integrity raises questions about the integrity and ethics of those who took his cash.
That is the counter-argument that Trump uses when asked about his donations to Hillary Clinton. In a corrupt system, the answer to corruption becomes corruption. Ideas become nullified and outrage trumps outrage. Every question of principle can be met with a cry of hypocrisy.
That can easily be seen in the latest FOX News Republican debate where, amid the petty insults and charges of hypocrisy and deceit, were the underlying questions about the suffering of a jobless nation.
Somewhere in the bottom depths of his speech, Romney mentioned offhandedly that he understood the public was angry in a way that demonstrated that he did not understand it. His failure to understand that anger back then had doomed his campaign. His failure to understand it now, doomed his latest speech. Anger cannot be tempered into something positive until its inciting cause has been sufficiently addressed. And the causes of that anger are not primarily ideological, but economic.
It is quite possible that none of the candidates on the debate stage or those like Romney who are attempting to influence it from the sidelines, either the optimists or the pessimists, will sufficiently satisfy that anger. Trump’s disavowal of his previous position on not importing foreign labor to take American jobs leaves voters with few options. It suggests that another, even angrier election may come in 2020.
But either way it is inevitable that nothing short of major reforms of the country will achieve that goal.
Both Trump and Romney have held different positions, even contradictory ones, but the speech demonstrated that the fundamental difference between Trump and Romney is that while both men once believed similar things, Trump adapted his rhetoric to a changing time and Romney did not. Romney’s political time capsule of a speech disregards everything that has taken place since then.
Just as there was a giant gap between the world before and after September 11, there is a gap between the world before the economic collapse and after it. Romney never did cross that gap. Trump did.
Last night's debate, like Romney’s speech, exposes the fracture lines of a changing party. A party caught in a struggle between an establishment that is still clinging to yesterday’s slogans and a political insurgency that is forcing change. Like the clash between Goldwater and Wead, this is a conflict about expectations and values where accusations of betrayal are flung about without any ground rules or meaning.
It is also a debate about how we see America. It is in the contrast between Rubio and Romney’s optimistic invocation of a country that has vast horizons of the future and an angrier and more skeptical view from Cruz and Trump about the state of the nation. The establishment tends to be naturally optimistic. Its opponents however tend toward pessimism. The future is somewhere in between.
We face philosophical and political questions, but most Americans face economic questions. These daily realities are often obscured by the strategic mechanics of political contests in which the purpose is to gain momentary advantages through shifts of rhetoric. And for many on the inside, the mechanics become the message, a bubble of unreality that appears internally consistent and sound no matter how externally unreal and irrelevant it may actually be.
Despite Mitt Romney’s business skills and his time as a missionary, he never broke through that bubble. On the FOX News debate stage, we saw candidates that were at least temporarily breaking through that bubble when they discussed the suffering and striving, the hopes and dreams of Americans. For politics to matter, it must connect to ordinary people. If it fails to do that, then it can never hope to endure.
“The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy and, while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that freemen acknowledge and the only security that freemen desire,” President Mirabeau B. Lamar of the Texas Republic once said.
The cultivated mind and the noble virtue are endangered today and so is democracy. We can bemoan this truth or we can struggle with the challenges of addressing the conditions that have made virtue so scarce and debased democracy into a mudslinging festival of muck by dealing with the public anger.
If we do not, then we may end up with a variety of dictators, real and virtual, undemocratic systems, unelected bureaucracies, radical leftists or crony capitalists, political establishments and radical revolutionaries that promise salvation, but offer no path back to virtue or to individual freedom.
Political movements die. And they change. They evolve or devolve. But they do so in response to the real fears and hopes of the public. Romney and too many Republicans have forgotten that simple fact.