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When the Center Has Finished Shifting, It Gets Quiet

After carefully watching and writing about last night's first 2012 GOP presidential candidates' debate, I woke up this morning and was surprised to hear a lot of talk, much of it from left-of-center observers, suggesting the candidates had shown all sorts of surprising maturity and moderation. This take by Jacob Weisburg of Slate is representative:

The GOP presidential field, while hardly dominated by political giants, appears far less outlandish than one might have predicted. At the first Republican debate in New Hampshire on Monday night, the seven candidates competed not for evangelical or libertarian favor, but for the status of someone plausible to compete with the president for swing voters.

Here are some of the things that did not happen in the debate. No one called Obama a socialist. No one gave ambiguous encouragement to the "birther" faction. While all of the candidates oppose gay marriage, no one bashed homosexuals. With the exception of the marginal former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, no one directly endorsed the Ryan Plan. Two months ago, every Republican in the House backed this plan; now, no one wants to talk about it.

In other words, the candidates did not howl at the moon, and did not go out of the way to associate themselves with a dangerously specific and unpopular Medicare proposal.

They did, however, with the exception of Herman Cain's brief endorsement of food safety inspections, uniformly reject any positive government role in domestic affairs, and more specifically, any legitimate government role in the economy, other than keeping money tight and getting rid of its own regulations. If anyone thought government could do anything at all to help the unemployed other than give more tax dollars and power to the people who had laid them off and/or foreclosed on their mortgages, they kept it to themselves. They engaged in an orgy of angry union-bashing that was entirely unlike anything that's ever happened in a debate among people running for president. And the sort of reticence Weisberg perceived on cultural issues basically meant that candidates who favor criminalization of abortion and re-stigmatization of gay people say they won't make it a major campaign issue. And why should they? They all agree on these extremist positions.

And that's an important thing to keep in mind: When the political center of a party, or a country, is in the process of shifting, there's a lot of noise and conflict. When it settles in its new place, however, it gets very quiet. To a very great extent, that's what has happened in the GOP. It is not a sign of "sanity" or "moderation;" simply one of consensus.

I also think a lot of the "how nice they are" assessments of the field after the debate reflect little more than the belief that Mitt Romney did really well and may actually get the nomination. That makes non-hardcore-conservatives feel better, if only because they tend to assume Romney's own hardcore conservatism is fake.

All the talk about Mitt dodging a bullet could be a mite premature. Yes, Tim Pawlenty passed up a chance to hit Romney at his weakest point, "ObamneyCare." Politico was so stunned by this turn of events they devoted their top story this morning to endless quotes from pundits and campaign strategists savaging poor T-Paw for cowardice or stupidity. But it's a long way to the 2012 convention, and the assumption that last night's scenario will be repeated in future campaign developments is entirely unwarranted. Perhaps Pawlenty thought other candidates would "go negative" in the debate before he had to. Or perhaps he figures he'd better become the "conservative alternative to Romney" before he has to worry about actually beating him. Who knows?

But the bottom line is that the GOP did not suddenly transform itself overnight. The drive to the right in the GOP has been underway for more than four decades. If it seems to have stopped, that's probably becomes it has arrived at its destination.