POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Sophisters, Calculators, and Economists

by David Trumbull

January 11, 2008

After back-to-back defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire (What? They had a caucus in Wyoming?), two states where he expected to win and build momentum for the race, Mitt Romney is down, but far from out. He has the money to continue, and all it would take is a couple of victories in bellwether states like Michigan or South Carolina to put his campaign back on track to the victory that he so carefully mapped out.

But I doubt it. Iowa caucus participants and New Hampshire voters had this in common: they said “not quite good enough” to second-place Romney’s shrewdly calculated appeal as the champion of every currently popular conservative policy position. Watch for that to play out in state after state.

It’s one of my pet theories that voters don’t expect any candidate to agree with them on every issue. What they look for is someone who is competent, whom they trust and agree with on important issues. No doubt Romney’s well qualified to administer this Republic. Indeed, much of his “pitch” is based on his success running large business enterprises and “saving” the Olympics. But the other GOP contenders are not manifestly incompetent. All have records of accomplishment in public office. Competence is a non-issue on the Republic side.

That leaves issues and character to distinguish the contenders. To the extent that there is a conservative “orthodoxy” (a strange concept given that it is part of the conservative temperament to reject the notion of ideological purity) Romney has carefully aligned himself with the views of the majority of Republican voters. He knows how to manipulate the language to appeal to the conservative base. He calculated just how far to the left he needed to swing to get elected in liberal Massachusetts, and he thought he knew precisely how far to sway toward evangelicals in Iowa and libertarians in New Hampshire. He invested his money in his campaign, sure that his perfectly researched econometric model of voting patterns will pay off as a business investment. And it won’t work.

As Russell Kirk summed it up, borrowing a phrase from Edmund Burke, conservatives distrust “sophisters, calculators, and economists,” and rightly so. For the world--even a caucus or primary election--is too complex with too many independent actors to ever yield itself to so cold-blooded an approach. It’s not enough for voters to agree with you, you need them to like and trust you. The machine-man that Romney has made himself into is not very likeable. And his pandering reveals an untrustworthy man.

Low-tax, free-market conservatives slam Mike Huckabee as no conservative on fiscal and trade policy, but Iowa Republicans overlooked that. Utterly failed immigration policy has conservative voters dismayed for our future, but Granite Staters voted for McCain whose immigration policy has been characterized as “amnesty.” Why. Because though they may not agree with Huckabee and McCain on every issue, they trust them and see in them reflections of themselves—warm human beings.