In the old days, people knew how to stay in line. Our institutions were powerful, as were political bosses and machines. You worked at the same office all your life, voted for the same political party, and then came home to the same wife. There was loyalty. And fear. For better or worse.
Respect for institutions, chain of command, and discretion were normal attributes for most Americans. You didn’t air your dirty laundry or speak out of turn. (This was perhaps best expressed by the words of Don Corleone in The Godfather: “Never tell anyone outside the Family what you’re thinking.”)
But over the years, our respect for and dependency on institutions has declined. In many ways this is a salutary development. The “good old days” weren’t always so good. We now have a “free agent nation,” where individuals are free to pursue dreams and opportunities. But there’s also a downside.
It was only a matter of time before this social trend manifested itself in our campaigns and elections. The push for moving presidential nominating contests from smoke-filled rooms to convention halls was one step in this trend. But I suspect the lack of message discipline has reached an apogee this year (presumably a sign of the lack of respect for a party’s sitting president and nominee). A disrespect for authority is the logical conclusion of this phenomenon.
In some ways, this may be good for our culture. But it makes political leadership a lot more like herding cats. A month or so ago, for example, Democratic surrogates and pundits such as former president Bill Clinton, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former Gov. Ed Rendell, and former Clinton adviser Lanny Davis completely undermined Obama’s attacks on private equity.
This was a big deal. It rocked Obama’s campaign and shifted the momentum toward Romney.
Now, it seems, the tables have turned. Prominent conservatives pundits like the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and columnist George Will — and political leaders like former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — have publicly criticized Romney’s handling of the campaign.
This outspokenness is problematic for campaigns. It leads to the “Even Republicans think,” sort of news stories — and there’s a multiplier effect. Seeing one person get away with speaking their mind emboldens others — who might otherwise toe the line — to speak out. The danger is that it gets out of hand, a tipping point is reached where the nominee becomes a punching bag.
Some of this might be specific to the times and faces of today.
Conservatives have vowed not to be co-opted by Romney, as many were by George W. Bush (The DC Examiner’s Philip Klein wrote an entire e-Book about this). What is more, many conservatives were always skeptical of Romney. Thus, they are much quicker to abandon him if and when they see him struggling, and they have little tolerance for his mistakes.
This isn’t fair to Mitt Romney, but the rules have changed. The problem is that while politicians need loyalty, what Romney is getting instead is intellectual honesty, meaning, conservatives are for him when he’s right. That’s all fine and good, but it isn’t terribly helpful in politics. When an aide told Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, “I’m with you when you’re right, Governor, but not when you’re wrong,” he famously responded: “You stupid [beep] I don’t need you when I’m right.)
That’s how all politicians feel.