Even for conservatives, the Mitt Romney campaign provides a meeting point between high finance and low expectations. Now that the GOP nomination is all but officially wrapped up, Mitt is free to shake the Etch-a-Sketch, tack to the center and betray the perfectly reasonable people who wear felt hats, stockings and breeches to point out the villainy of, say, Head Start.

For American conservatives, it must be galling to feel like Democrats—like they've already been screwed before being given the chance to lose the election. For everyone else, it presents a familiar admixture of comedy and depression. Take last Monday, when Mitt rejected a call to try Barack Obama for treason—backstage, out of earshot of the woman who demanded it, as if he was worried she might overhear.

As funny as that image seems, it's probably not an exaggeration. Someone as prone to unprovoked acts of deep awkwardness and embarrassment as Mitt knows the dangers of jeering crowds. He had no incentive to contradict a woman at a rally when she rose and said:

We have a president right now that is operating outside the structure of our Constitution. And I want to know—yeah, I do agree he should be tried for treason—but I want to know what you would be able to do to restore balance between the three branches of government and what you are going to be able to do to restore our Constitution in this country.

The best outcome is that people listen to his reply, and they move on to the next question. The likeliest outcome is that a person like this woman wants to argue back, while some people in the crowd murmur disapprovingly that Ol' Centrist Mitt isn't throwing down the Founders' Gauntlet for +25 Originalism Hit Points. The worst outcome is that everyone starts booing or playing fifes or waving flags with snakes on them. It's that first option, the reasonable-debate one, that stood the least chance of happening.

While Mitt might come off like some oleaginous, ingratiating gland, at least he knew not to fight this. Anyone concerned about the Constitution while employing a charge of "treason" that would be thoroughly dismissed by even a brief glance at that document's contents is not someone you can win an argument with. More importantly, as tone-deaf as Mitt is about almost everything else, he's alertly responded to the accelerated rightward drift of his own party since 2008. One symptom of that drift is hearing from citizens like this woman, agitated by the imbalance of powers amongst the branches of government—people who for the most part had nothing to say as the Bush administration vastly expanded the imperial presidency while the GOP congress worked as rubber-stamp lackeys.

Calmly repudiating the woman's demands backstage sends a clear message to independents that he's "not crazy," while allowing the current GOP base its moment on stage. Mitt self-interestedly grasps the danger of fear-mongering like this woman's: it no longer has anything to do with the rule of law or even historicity. The Constitution and the founding fathers, etc., are largely immaterial when it comes to the defense of both. What is essential, however, is paying lip service to the ever-rightward drift of the normative definitions of "treason" and "patriotism" and "apostasy" and "authenticity." Those definitions aren't anchored to any enumerated third-party document or understanding of events; they're solipsistic. In short:

The last evidence of reasonable function of government was whenever the things I wanted to happen happened. America's un-Americanness manifests in people I didn't vote for doing things I don't like within the bounds of some eggheaded Ivory Tower book bullshit about 'laws'. Freedom. Reality is now a nightmare of things I have to air-quote when referring to. Liberty.

Naturally, liberal commentators expressed disappointment and disgust with Romney for his failure to challenge this woman on the spot. Joan Walsh of Salon even titled her op-ed, "Romney's Moment of Cowardice." And, like a lot of liberal commentators, her sterling moment of courageous counterpoint was one delivered by John McCain in 2008, before he lost the election, was condemned by the Michelle Malkins of the world as a RINO and described as the millstone around the neck of the Sarah Palin vice-presidency.

Here's how Walsh led off her column:

In hindsight, the last big moment of integrity for the Republican Party came when Sen. John McCain challenged an older white woman who called Barack Obama an "Arab" at an October 2008 campaign event. "No ma'am," he told her wearily. "He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]."

Of course, buried in the middle of McCain's indefatigable truth-telling is the implication that "a decent family man and citizen" is the obverse of "an Arab." Either consciously or because it was an ad-lib, he walked up to 50% of the truth, civilly describing his opponent while allowing an ethnic group demonized and feared by GOP national security pundits to remain hopelessly The Other. He got to be strong on both points—integrity and seven years of race-driven profitable paranoia.

Mitt Romney knows what happened to McCain, what even half-priced integrity and answering back gets you, in the current climate. And creeping doubts he might have had about constitutional law or collegial decency were certainly dispelled last night, when Dick Lugar got his shit stomped in Indiana, after 36 years of service in the US Senate.

Of Richard Mourdock, the man who defeated him in the Indiana primary, Lugar said:

[Mourdock] and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.

He speaks of an ideologically cleansing purge with the clarity and authority of being its victim. Lugar was no Democrat, and he wasn't even a centrist. He was, however, objectionably heterodox because he occasionally evinced civility and the conviction that compromise can produce governance and that political opponents are not inherently toxic to humanity, with acid blood and a tendency to reproduce by raping your face and laying eggs in your chest. This was enough.

Dick Lugar represents only the recent victim of Right-Wing RINO Whack-a-Mole. If Lugar's periodic willingness to work to govern is unforgivable, even McCain's half-measures of correcting far-right hysteria are now beyond the pale. Mitt Romney's a coward about a lot of things, but in this instance, he'd be a fool to be anything else. In the midst of a purge, for God's sake, keep your head down.

"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?

Image by Jim Cooke