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The Problem of Conservative 'Intellectuals' | The Nation

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The Problem of Conservative 'Intellectuals'

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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks to Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, August 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The search for sensible conservatives grows more Sisyphean this election season as Mitt Romney proves increasingly inept at making the case for his own candidacy. A liberal Republican until recently, Romney was never a terribly credible conservative messenger, but defending him has never been quite as complicated as when he sought to exploit an attack on the US embassy in Cairo to revive his failing campaign.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Romney’s foolish intervention arose, as one of his advisers explained to The New York Times (before the quote was inexplicably removed from the paper’s website), because “we felt this was a situation that met our critique.” True, Romney’s statements met a desperate political need. After all, the candidate somehow forgot to mention Al Qaeda or the war in Afghanistan in his Republican National Convention speech. He then compounded the error by explaining that the point of such speeches is that “you talk about the things that you think are important.” He would have been better off talking to an empty chair. But when Romney and his advisers leveled false accusation after false accusation against the president based on mistaken information about what had taken place in Egypt and Libya, his words threatened to inflame an already perilous set of simultaneous crises overseas.

The combination of fecklessness, panic and dishonesty at so crucial a moment proved a kind of tipping point for a few Republicans, including Matthew Dowd, Peggy Noonan, Joe Scarborough, David Frum, Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter and Ed Rogers. Even that inside-dopester and frequent channeler of the wisdom of Karl Rove, Mark Halperin, didn’t find a way to explain why Romney’s misstep “really hurt the Democrats.” Most Republicans, however, sought simply to steer clear of the shipwreck by distancing themselves from Romney’s remarks without explicitly criticizing them. The Team of Silence included convention stars John McCain and Condoleezza Rice, as well as most of the House and Senate party leadership.

What remained were the stalwarts: pundits willing to go where the other right-wingers feared to tread in order to stand by their man. This group—which can be found spouting a mixture of conspiracy-mongering, nativism, racism and (generally speaking) know-nothing anti-intellectual idiocy—ranges from Republican political leaders like Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint, to former Bush officials and their progeny like John Bolton and Liz Cheney, to bloodthirsty professional lunatics like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Significantly, however, this motley crew was joined by what passes for the “brain trust” of the conservative movement: the members of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, National Review’s Rich Lowry, Commentary’s John Podhoretz and former Commentary blogger turned Washington Post right-wing attack dog Jennifer Rubin.

Notably, not one of these supposed smart folk sought to defend Romney’s actual words or actions. A few admitted that the “timing” of his remarks was questionable, and a few others allowed for a lack of precision in his language. But Romney’s real mistake, insisted the Journal editors, was “to offend a pundit class that wants to cede the foreign policy debate to Mr. Obama without thinking seriously about the trouble for America that is building in the world.” William Kristol felt that Romney was correct to “seize on” the 9/11 anniversary “as an occasion to explain the difference between his foreign policy and President Obama’s. He’s right to reject the counsel of the mainstream media, which is to keep quiet and give President Obama a pass.”

According to Rich Lowry, the previous criticism of Romney was that “he didn’t talk about foreign policy. The newly minted complaint about Romney was that he did talk about foreign policy,” so that the poor fellow “gets it coming and going.” Meanwhile, John Podhoretz kvetched about the view of what he called “the establishment”: “that discussing these horrific events in the course of the presidential campaign is monstrous…. In the precincts of America’s Most High, the worst evil done yesterday was Mitt Romney daring to broach the subject and use it to criticize President Obama’s foreign policy.” Topping them all off, Jennifer Rubin criticized “the media” and the president for allegedly insisting that “he is beyond criticism,” adding, “journalism is now farce.”

Alas, all of the alleged crimes these conservative “intellectuals” attributed to Obama and the MSM were imaginary. The ineptitude of the Romney campaign—as well as their own commitment to the ignorance (and ideological obsessions) of their respective constituencies—has led them to make themselves appear ridiculous before the world. Television and radio bookers, university lecture agents, and pretty much everyone who pays anyone to explain politics, beware: the intellectual high priests of the conservative movement have, as the saying goes, “jumped the shark.” None of these clowns ever deserve to be booked again to give an honest, informed view of the state of American politics or culture, save perhaps on comedy shows or late-night chiller-thriller theater. That may sound harsh, but as Michael Corleone might say, this is the life they have chosen.

What was perhaps most ironic—as well as appropriate to this farcical episode—was the fact that, apparently unnoticed by all, Romney later pulled the rug out from under his ardent defenders. Asked about the film that seemingly inspired the riots and attacks, he echoed exactly the same sentiments contained in the Cairo embassy statement that he and his putative champions had previously found so contemptible. “I think the whole film is a terrible idea. I think [that] making it, promoting it, showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths…. I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment—the good judgment—not to be, not to offend other peoples’ faiths.”

There you have it: Mitt Romney, terrorist apologist.

Afflicted by the elite journalistic disease of “on-the-one-handism,” the MSM’s supposed arbiters of truth—like the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler—can’t make sense of this presidential contest, writes Eric Alterman in the September 24 issue.

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