Kevin Drum, reacting to the debate yesterday, points out that several of the candidates made extremely radical claims that have gone virtually unremarked upon in the subsequent media coverage. Michelle Bachmann promised to abolish the EPA. Mitt Romney argued that virtually every function of government should be relinquished to the states or private industry. To that list, I'd add Gingrich's contention that Muslims might not belong in government, as well as the entire field's inability to admit that maybe, just maybe, certain sectors of the economy might need some marginal amount of regulation.
A while back I wrote up a jokey post suggesting that I was supporting Bachmann in the presidential race. But some part of me actually, genuinely thinks it would be for the best if she (or one of the other nutball candidates) won the nomination, even with the knowledge that the nominee has a substantial chance of winning the election.
The reason I say this is because, in regards to the GOP primary, the optics have overwhelmed the policy. Conventional wisdom says Bachmann and Santorum and Paul and Palin are bonkers, while Pawlenty and Romney and Huntsman are dull, sedate, and unremarkable. But those impressions are more deeply rooted in the candidates' public personas than in the substance of their platforms. As last night demonstrated, there's just not that much disagreement between the candidates on substance. At the moment, you simply can't find that much breathing room between the policy prescriptions of, say, Bachmann and Romney. Worse still, this apparent consensus has coalesced around views that, as recently as three years ago, would have been closely associated with the political fringe.
Think back to 2008 and early 2009. Who in government, besides hard-line Republicans, was saying that the correct response to the economic collapse was to cut spending, deregulate banks, and let the states take care of everything? Today, how many Republicans of any stripe are saying anything else?
For me, this naturally raises a concern: if Romney or Pawlenty or Huntsman does win the nomination, would those policy prescriptions suddenly be granted a veneer of rationality and sobriety just because their most notable proponent seems rational and sober? After all, most people, and most pundits, generally lack the capability to independently evaluate policy in a void. In American politics, ideas regularly shuttle between the fringe and the mainstream, and unfortunately for us, there's no invisible barrier which filters out the crazy ones. Equally unfortunately, most modern reporters are very reluctant to stand up and evaluate an idea on its merits once that idea has achieved a certain degree of purchase in the mainstream. In other words, the Tea Party's loony agenda could suddenly become credible, after being passed on to Romney or Pawlenty in some sort of Relay Race to Public Acceptance. That's no good. If the Tea Party's ideas are destined to be tested on a national stage, Bachmann and Co. should be the ones to carry them there, just so everyone can see who's been carrying them all along.