Ross Douthat quotes liberally from Rush Limbaugh's pre-emptive explanation of the Republicans' Waterloo: the moderates dunnit. And by "moderates", Rush means everybody from Colin Powell to . . . Ross Douthat!
Ross only engages this argument, if you can call it that, at a very meta level, at least in this particular post. At the risk of merely repeating Ross's own work, I would like to address it in more detail.
While I have to confess to my own bafflement at how John McCain won the nomination (more on this in a moment), I'm not persuaded by Limbaugh's argument that the conservative intelligentsia put one over on Republican primary voters by selling them on the idea that only a "moderate" could win. That is not my recollection. On the contrary, I recall McCain running as a true conservative, plus a compelling biography, plus steadfastness on the war. To the extent anyone thought him a moderate, like NR, they were NOT supporting him.
Now, neither I nor anyone I know bought into the "McCain is a true conservative" line. While many of them appreciated his support for "the Surge" (I did not), this was not enough to outweigh his earlier support for amnesty.
My best explanation for his win was that those opposed to McCain divided their votes between Romney (the men) and Huckabee (the women). But the weakness of this theory is that the "moderate" faction, to the extent we can call it that, also divided its votes between McCain and Guiliani. In the final analysis, it is not clear to me that the conservatives outvoted the moderates at all, which says something about Republican primary voters today.
Neither Romney nor Huckabee were without weaknesses, of course. Romney's conservatism was, politically speaking, only a few hours old, and in any case was not the theme of his campaign. Meanwhile, Huckabee's persona was off-putting to anyone not a conservative southern Evangelical, plus he showed a limited ability to engage arguments about his own policies.
But . . . why McCain? Seriously, since I don't know any McCain voters from the primary, can anyone sketch me a profile of what one looks like?
I now come to my point: McCain's coming defeat in the general election is not because he's not conservative enough. On the contrary, watching McCain is like watching a weird parody of Republican Greatest Hits, 1980 - 1988. It's that his talking points are detached from the reality around us. Promises of tax cuts don't mean anything if you're loosing money. Support for the surge doesn't mean anything if you think the Iraq war has outlived its usefulness to American security. Attacks on Obama's association with William Ayers doesn't mean anything if he can't tie it to some issue that voters actually care about.
As Steve points out today, McCain's campaign isn't about anything. Contra Half Sigma, the only time McCain pulled ahead of Obama this cycle was after his nomination of Sarah Palin, a lead he lost as it became clear that Palin brought no substance of her own to the campaign, and could only repeat McCain's substance-free talking points . . . very, very badly.
UPDATE: We've got a live one!