For a good snapshot of what's likely to be a well-coordinated election-year theme for president Obama and his surrogates, take a look at Ezra Klein's campaign-style characterization of today's GOP as a place so insanely retrograde that Mitt Romney, actually a right-wing ideologue, counts as a moderate.
Mitt Romney is the most moderate candidate in the Republican primaries. [...] But compared with recent Republican nominees, Romney’s policy platform is quite conservative, and arguably even a bit extreme. George W. Bush, for instance, looks like a Kenyan socialist in comparison.
The impulse is strong to observe that if John McCain is the standard, any Republican will look conservative. But that's not the right point to make here. What was most important about recent nominees George W. Bush and John McCain is not where they fell on the traditional/stereotypical right/left spectrum, but how their ill or incoherent fit on that spectrum demonstrated just what the rise of the Tea Party and the relative success of Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul show today: which policies define a 'conservative' is a deeply contested issue within the Republican party.
Today's GOP is not lurching dramatically rightward any more than it has been in cycles past, when commentators on the left have also accused Republicans of being more heartless, dogmatic, and extreme than ever. This is a primary season that has seen Gingrich and Rick Perry attack Romney from the traditional left on the economy, Jon Huntsman attack him from the 'left' on banking, and Ron Paul attack him from the 'left' on foreign policy. Just last night, Rick Santorum knocked Romney wildly off script by attacking him from the traditional left on criminal justice.
Rather than the consolidation and triumph of some purified form of ultraconservatism, what has defined the GOP of late has been an unprecedented proliferation of counter-orthodoxies among a growing number of Republican factions and subfactions. Various components of the Republican coalition have brought to the table squishiness on gay marriage, squishiness on illegal immigration, squishiness on the drug war, squishiness on entitlements, squishiness on military spending, and squishiness on surveillance and security issues, to name a few. Big government conservatism is alive and well -- but so are permissive libertarianism, corporatist Whiggery, national greatness elitism, and Jacksonian anti-globalism.
Romney's attempt to run a traditional Reaganist/fusionist campaign failed miserably in 2008, and Pawlenty's attempt to do the same thing failed even more miserably this year. Santorum's votes-for-felons hit on Romney shows that not even a blue-collar Catholic from a coastal rust belt state can run as a simple conservative. When it comes to the definition of conservative, there is no settled science. There is hardly even a consensus.
There is, however, a pretty clear picture of what it means today to be a liberal, if president Obama and his professional partisans are concerned. Ezra's enumeration of Bush policies that dragged or would have dragged his party to the left are revealing. Bush wanted to "vastly expand federal control and financing of America's education system." Bush wanted to create "kindler, gentler" federal programs for illegal/undocumented immigrants. Bush emphasized "strengthening Social Security and Medicare." Bush set in motion Medicare Part D, "the single largest entitlement expansion since the advent of Medicare." And Bush strongly implied that only times of surplus "allow a substantial tax cut." Insofar as Bush worked to increase the size, scope, power, and resources of government, in other words, Bush acted liberally.
Since Romney dares to propose cutting taxes even now, Ezra concludes, at a time when Democrats have increased our debt to the highest level in the history of time, Romney has moved, like the rest of the GOP, "far to the right since 2000." Never mind that the GOP's greatest hits during the past twelve years include developing the idea of the individual mandate, nominating John McCain, electing Michael Steele, raising the debt ceiling, and on and on. Of course, as Ron Paul has pointed out, tax cuts without significant spending cuts are a most unconservative hallmark of the modern-day GOP, but Ezra has no room for Paul, or any other critic of Obama who doesn't fit neatly into the now nearly demolished conceptual box of traditional fusion conservatism.
What matters for Ezra is that the GOP's Massachusetts Moderate "is proposing more than $6 trillion in new tax cuts that will disproportionately help the richest Americans, and he intends to pay for it through spending cuts -- such as block-granting Medicaid -- that will disproportionately hurt seniors and low-income Americans. That’s not a political attack, by the way. It’s math."
If it's not a political attack, why does it use president Obama's words as the crescendo of a piece written for the president's election-year playbook? The whole point of Ezra's argument is to frame a clear, concise, and damaging political attack on both Romney and the GOP. He's got every right to do try to do that, but Democrats ought to be held to account when they advance this narrative, as they are reasonably certain to do. Ezra's imposing a dated, oversimplified conceptual framework onto today's beleaguered but increasingly unconventional Republican party. That framework can't help but seem deliberately selected for the benefit of its distortions. And such is politics. But if Ezra really thinks his creation explains it all when it comes to today's GOP, I'd encourage him and his fellow liberals to look a little deeper -- before they're blindsided by something big.