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Ignore our Beltway betters: The 2012 crop of Republican candidates is the best in my memory. Not coincidentally, it is also the most conservative.

The notion that Chris Christie or Paul Ryan or Mitch Daniels, let alone Jeb Bush on his self-propelled bandwagon, would somehow save us from these allegedly flawed wannabes is a presumption worthy only of Rockefeller Republicans and small children.

The string of debates has tested the 2012 crew in ways their predecessors never were and toughened them in the process. If Ronald Reagan, bless his heart, were running against them, he would not stand out.

Although an excellent public speaker, Reagan waffled as a debater. In 1984 I watched him debate with the same prayerful anxiety I watch Tim Tebow quarterback in 2011. To his good fortune, Reagan only had to face Walter Mondale, no one’s idea of a political Tom Brady.

In the 1980 primaries, Reagan stood out largely because the field of Republicans – John Anderson, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, John Connally, Lowell Weicker – was so squishy and undefined that the equally amorphous George Bush could win Iowa.

Bush won Iowa, in no small part, because the major media were dictating the Republican narrative. Conservatives got their media almost exclusively in the mail, and the message they got was usually either too cautious or too crazy and always too late.

Put the Gipper where he belongs while driving liberals nuts — print of Mount Rushmore includes face of Ronald Reagan!

In 1980 Reagan’s opponents held his conservatism against him. The media amplified their charges. This year, as never before, talk radio, the Internet and now the social media have thrown the balance of power back to everyday conservative voters, the most universally well-informed in the history of mass democracy.

Given the resonance of the alternative media, Republican candidates pay less heed to the urgings of the elite, right or left, than they do to the vox populi. This is unprecedented.

As a result, all of the Republican candidates, save the tone-deaf Jon Huntsman, are running hard to the right. In 1980, except for Reagan and Rep. Phil Crane, the candidates ran to the center, even in the primaries.

This year, the establishment candidates all sit on the sidelines. There are no Bob Doles in this year’s race, no John McCains, no George Bushes. In the age of social media, the oxymoronic “compassionate conservatism” would not survive a week’s worth of scrutiny.

When I open my Facebook page each morning, I watch the battle for the right flank unfold. The candidates’ supporters post flattering commentary and video clips on their own guy and unflattering info on his or her opponents, especially that moment’s front-runner.

Were a reincarnated Reagan running this year, he would face the same kind of cyber rough and tumble. I can imagine the postings on my Facebook page:

Reagan – once a Democrat always a Democrat. Don’t be fooled by all the sweet talk. As governor of California, Reagan signed into law the largest tax increase in the history of any state.

Pro-life Reagan? Tell that to California’s unborn. In 1967, as governor of California, Reagan signed a bill that would dramatically liberalize the state’s abortion laws. Don’t believe me. Read this and weep.

RINO Reagan would destroy the American family. Do we really want to elect a twice-married former Democrat president, especially one who signed California’s devastating no-fault divorce law?

Although he proved to be the 20th century’s best president, Reagan had as much inconvenient history to explain away as Newt and Mitt. It is just that in the 1980 primaries, no one attacked him from the right.

In this year’s primaries, all effective blows come from the right. These punches are no more brutal than in the past. They are simply more accurate.

The charges that antagonists post are inevitably documented. On Facebook, we can hear Mitt Romney 1.0 claim to be a moderate or see Newt Gingrich 2.0 cozy up to Nancy Pelosi on the subject of global warming.

These charges then are fed back into the subsequent debates. As best they can, the candidates either atone for their past failures to honor conservative principles or at least put these failures into a conservative context.

Audience members leave hopeful that the errant candidate will have learned from his past mistakes. If not, they are fully prepared to hold that candidate to his forever-archived debate comments should he or she think of straying.

Democrats, by contrast, feed on a stunningly narrow stream of information. The media shield them from their follies, and ignorance keeps them optimistic. Most could not tell you what “Fast and Furious” means or who Van Jones is or why conservatives laugh when they hear the phrase “57 states.”

As a consequence, the one thing Democrats truly do not know is what they are in for in 2012.

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