When, in his speech accepting the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, Barry Goldwater said “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” a media wit at the convention supposedly exclaimed, “Good God, Goldwater is going to run as Goldwater.” When Mitt Romney decided to run with Paul Ryan, many conservatives may have thought, “Thank God, Romney is not going to run as Romney.”
Not, that is, as the Romney who 12 months ago, warily eyeing Iowa, refused to say a discouraging word about the ethanol debacle. Rather, he is going to run as the Romney who, less than two weeks before announcing Ryan, told the states — Iowa prominent among them — that he opposes extending the wind energy production tax credit, which expires soon.
This may seem a minor matter, as well as an obvious and easy decision for a conservative. The wind tax credit is, after all, industrial policy, the government picking winners and losers in defiance of market signals — industrial policy always is a refusal to heed the market’s rejection of that which the government singles out for favoritism. But ethanol subsidies also are industrial policy. And just a few days after Romney got the wind subsidy right, more than half of the 11 Republican senators on the Finance Committee got it wrong, voting to extend it. So even before choosing Ryan, Romney was siding with what might, with a nod to Howard Dean, be called the Republican wing of the Republican Party. For Romney, conservatism is a second language, but he speaks it with increasing frequency and fluency.
Romney embraced Ryan after the sociopathic — indifferent to the truth — ad for Barack Obama that is meretricious about every important particular of the death from cancer of the wife of steelworker Joe Soptic. Obama’s desperate flailing about to justify four more years has sunk into such unhinged smarminess that Romney may have concluded: There is nothing Obama won’t say about me, because he has nothing to say for himself, so I will chose a running mate whose seriousness about large problems and ideas underscores what the president has become — silly and small.
He on whose behalf the Soptic ad was made used to dispense bromides deploring “the smallness of our politics” and “our preference for scoring cheap political points.” Obama’s campaign of avoidance — say anything to avoid the subject of the country’s condition — must now reckon with Ryan’s mastery of Obama’s enormous addition to decades of governmental malpractice.
Obama is, by now, nothing if not predictable, so prepare for pieties deploring Ryan’s brand of “extremism” that has supplanted responsible conservatism. Goldwater, quoted above, infuriated the sort of people who, regardless of what flavor of conservatism is in fashion, invariably purse their lips and sorrowfully say: “We think conservatism is a valuable thread in our national fabric, etc., but not this kind of conservatism.” Goldwater’s despisers did not recognize his echo of words by Martin Luther King Jr. 15 months earlier.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote, “You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. … But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love. … Was not Amos an extremist for justice. … Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel. … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Remember this episode when you hear, ad nauseam, that Ryan is directly, and Romney now is derivatively, an extremist for believing (a) that “ending Medicare as we know it” will be done by arithmetic if it is not done by creative reforms of the sort Ryan proposes, and (b) that the entitlement state’s crisis cannot be cured, as Obama suggests, by adding 4.6 points to the tax rate paid by less than 3 percent of Americans.
When Ryan said in Norfolk, “We won’t replace our Founding principles, we will reapply them,” he effectively challenged Obama to say what Obama believes, which is: Madison was an extremist in enunciating the principles of limited government — the enumeration and separation of powers. And Jefferson was an extremist in asserting that government exists not to grant rights but to “secure” natural rights that pre-exist government.
Romney’s selection of a running mate was, in method and outcome, presidential. It underscores how little in the last four years merits that adjective.
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.