The reaction to the first Republican presidential debate baffles me. Here you have the entire roster of candidates endorsing the new Republican orthodoxy—a Hooverism for the 21st century—and yet commentators are acting as though there is somehow a new moderation among the candidates. Even my own esteemed Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg penned a column headlined "Going Sane," arguing that we are seeing a shift toward the middle among the Republican candidates.
If there is a shift to the middle, it is only because the new "middle" is yesterday's far right.
Sure, there was a civility to the debate, a congeniality that was pleasant and soothing. But beneath that veneer, if you listened, you could hear the policies of the worst elements of the Republican Party over the past several decades—policies that once were fringe but have now become the mainstream Republican positions.
There are three core examples of this: the cut-taxes/deregulation libertarian perspective that puts even greater faith in the magic of an unfettered private sector than it did before the economic cataclysm of 2007-08; a social conservatism that is hard line on same-sex marriage and abortion rights; and a newfound isolationism that is an overreaction to the adventurism and unilateralism of President George W. Bush.
Consider the principles that virtually all the candidates swore allegiance to in this so-called moderate debate:
In the economic sphere, they propose to cut taxes once again for the rich, and to nearly eliminate taxes on capital gains, interest, and dividend payments. No matter that the economy and job market have only gotten worse since President Bush pushed down tax rates. They propose to repeal Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley, as if overregulation was the cause of the Wall Street meltdown. They propose to eliminate most of the regulations that the EPA and other agencies have promulgated. And they swear to prevent any more bailouts or stimulus spending, as if the auto bailout failed.
They seek to repeal the New Deal, repeal Keynesian economics, repeal all that worked from the Great Depression until 2000: 70 years during which we created the middle class, the finest infrastructure in the world, and the greatest economy the world has ever known. This is radical, not moderate.
In the social sphere, the candidates expressed none of the "compassionate" conservatism that carried George W. Bush forward. On issues relating to marriage and choice, these free-market candidates implored the government to intervene in the private lives of citizens. This is radical, not moderate.
In foreign policy, they express an isolationism that is fascinating because it is completely antithetical to Republicans' insistence on American exceptionalism. These candidates now seem focused exclusively on withdrawing into our tent and pretending the rest of the world is not there. This is radical, not moderate.
The constant rightward journey of the Republican Party since the days of Richard Nixon has been remarkable. For Romney at least, this embrace of conservative theology may be an effort to navigate through a dicey primary season dominated by Tea Party activists. But it is hard not to conclude that we are seeing the end of rational conservatism: the regulated market capitalism coupled with globalism that began with Eisenhower.
We face a presidential race in which the chasm between the parties will be as great as any I can recall since the battle between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. I hope this bodes well for President Obama, and that his results will mirror those of Johnson in 1964. But part of me fears that the circumstances we face might permit us to lurch even further toward what was once the political fringe.