In the 2008 campaign, many conservative activists were unhappy with the campaign of Republican nominee John McCain. It wasn’t simply that these movement conservatives—the forerunners of the tea party—felt that Sen. McCain was too much of a moderate, though that certainly was a consideration. Rather, it was that McCain distanced himself from the more vile and virulent aspects of conservative hatred of then-Senator Obama. As Politico reported in the closing month of the 2008 campaign:
McCain passed his wireless microphone to one woman who said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh — he’s an Arab. He’s not — ” before McCain retook the microphone and replied:
“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
The public display of fear and unease over Obama comes at the end of a week in which other Republicans at McCain and Sarah Palin events expressed similar frustrations, a product of exasperation at the prospect of the Illinois senator becoming president and their own nominee not doing enough to prevent it.
McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, sought to tamp down concerns about the audience outbursts on a conference call earlier Friday, saying they were not a “big deal.”
Sen. McCain may have wanted to go toe-to-toe with the junior senator from Illinois, but he did not define fighting the same way his conservative base did. He felt that while campaigns should show vehement disagreement on the issues of the day, catering to the extreme elements of the base that were motivated by xenophobia and racism were off-limits. Whether or not this ethos was a result of a sincere commitment to principle, or whether it was politically motivated by a fear of turning off the moderate voters who were sympathetic to Obama, is irrelevant. Whether strategy or conviction, McCain was laudably unafraid to express his feelings to his conservative base.
“The time has come and the Bible tells us you speak the truth and that the truth sets you free,” the man added.
Yet another voter implored McCain in plain terms: “The people here in Minnesota want to see a real fight.”
McCain promised the audience he wouldn’t back down — but again sought to tamp down emotions.
“We want to fight, and I will fight,” McCain said. “But I will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him.”
At which point he was booed again.
“I don’t mean that has to reduce your ferocity,” he added over the jeers. “I just mean to say you have to be respectful.”
According to the current generation of conservative activists, being a “fighter” is not based on a clear ideological contrast. McCain’s problem was not that he was perceived as a moderate, though that certainly did not help. Rather, inspiring the conservative base was dependent on something else entirely: being personally confrontational against against the opposing candidate, and embracing, rather than rejecting, the racism, othering, and xenophobic hate that was fueling the fire of the base.
Enter Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee about to square off against the very same Barack Obama, who is inspiring at least the same, if not much more, conspiracy theories and irrational hatred that he did during the 2008 campaign. One would assume that if McCain had trouble with the conservative activist base because of his moderation, Mitt Romney would be in even more severe trouble a fortiori, given Romney’s previous support of abortion and his introduction of a health insurance mandate. And if conservative activists were motivated by ideology rather than by confrontation, that might be more of a problem.
Today’s right-wing base places ideological agreement as a secondary consideration to vilifying and destroying its movement’s designated bogeymen, regardless of veracity or consequence. Its icon is Andrew Breitbart, who had no problem with resorting to outright lying if it meant being able to score hard-hitting points against his chosen targets. During his lifetime, Breitbart was unapologetic about his outright vilification of those on the other side of the aisle. Mitt Romney has realized that he will never convince conservatives that he is one of them from an ideological point of view; instead, he has decided to gain their affection by doing the one thing that warms their hearts more than anything else: embracing extremist conspiracy theories and being a confrontational jerk.
Also part of this pattern has been the campaign’s refusal — mystifying to liberals and the media that praised McCain — to stand up Trump’s birther crusade. President Obama has even questioned the candidate’s “moral leadership” as a result of his alliance with The Donald. But the Romney campaign sees instances like McCain’s publicly rebuking a supporter who called Obama an “Arab” as moments of political weakness — the equivalent of throwing the base into an ice bath when he most needed them fired up.
His campaign’s most recent muscle-flexing stunt came Thursday, when Romney pulled off the surprise visit to Solyndra in San Francisco, using the bankrupt company’s headquarters as a backdrop to hammer the president for “picking winners and losers” in the economy. Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away, campaign aides, interns, and volunteers crashed a press conference scheduled by senior Obama adviser Axelrod on the steps of the Massachusetts Statehouse. The rowdy crowd drowned out the speakers at times with loud boos, blew bubbles at them when they were talking, and interrupted with chants of, “Five more months!”
Now, one might dismiss this strategy as dangerous: After all, embracing dead-end positions such as birtherism and engaging in renegade campaign tactics is supposed to turn off the middle-of-the-road voters upon which every election hinges. But Romney is past that point already: He figures that the centrist voters are irrelevant if he can’t get the conservative base motivated to vote for him. And how is the conservative base motivated?
“My God, this is right out of Breitbart’s playbook. I love it!” he said. “I swear to God, if he roller skates into the DNC convention, or hijacks an Obama press conference — if he does either one of those I’m going to give my kid’s college money to his Super PAC.”
But don’t worry, everyone: The High Broderists will come along very soon to talk about how both sides are at fault.