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Nothing would be easier than to laugh at the Republican Party, whose presidential candidates have vied for our amusement. A more dismal group has not been assembled since Sarah Palin dined alone.

Those who remain in the race for the Republican nomination, and those who have departed it, made up a group characterized by insularity, intellectual shallowness and meanness of spirit, coupled with an unshakable eagerness to pander to every holy roller, Tea Partier, gun worshipper, global warming denier, government hater, nativist and billionaire financier – or, as Yeats would say, "the worst are full of passionate intensity."

That this crop of candidates was the best that a once-great party could muster says much about the state of presidential politics, Republican-style. It says even more about the state of conservative opinion in America.

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That opinion, with all its shadings, is best characterized by a consuming anger – which explains why the campaign hasn't been about differences or vision but about resentment and fear and perfervid rhetoric that candidates have directed at each other and at real and imagined threats ranging from Barack Obama to Muslims, China, European "socialists," excessive government and mad Iranian mullahs.

A very long time ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote a book explaining the paranoid streak in American politics. Paranoia has ebbed and flowed over the decades, but now it fully grips the Republican Party, whose members flail at foes real or imagined.

Paranoia is based on many imaginary fears, and one reality: that the United States is in relative international decline and in a domestic mess. For a country accustomed to believing it's No. 1 in everything, events at home and abroad have undercut those assurances and left a lot of Americans fearful.

Foreign military interventions have proved costly and difficult, with failure to build stability in Afghanistan once U.S. forces leave and failure to achieve democracy in the developing dictatorship in Iraq. Americans now find themselves being drawn to a place most don't want to go: a military attack on Iran, a beguiling simplicity fraught with dangerous complexities.

At home, words starting with "d" – debt, deficit, dysfunction – dominate discourse, underscoring the fact that the country is plagued by fiscal problems that will curtail both domestic and foreign ambitions. To this certainty, all the Republicans can offer is the circle that couldn't be squared over the past three decades: smaller government and lower taxes leading to a balanced budget.

Republicans respond to sad signals of national decay with belligerence abroad and defiance at home. Whatever sense of moderation and decorum that used to tinge the party has been lost, as its base shifted to the South and West, its religious members felt condescended to by disrespectful secularists, and its preferred media outlets on television and radio became ever more clangorous.

The last of the Republican moderates, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, said last week she could no longer abide the rabid partisanship and would not seek re-election. Mitt Romney, the presumptive nominee who once comported himself as Ms. Snowe did but, finding no appetite for moderation in the party, renounced all signs of the kind always shown by his father, George, governor of Michigan, and spent this and his previous nomination campaign trying to portray himself as rabidly conservative.

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This swallowing of past inclinations and policy positions underscores the fact that Mr. Romney doesn't necessarily believe his own positions, so they can be adjusted or rented to suit the audience and occasion. What doesn't change, however, is his admiration for the upper class into which he was born, the two Cadillacs his wife drives and other manifestations of his stuffed-shirt non-appeal to the working stiffs of his country.

Mr. Romney, therefore, drives the populists of his party wild with anxiety that he's not really one of them and would, if given a long leash (such as the White House), sell his soul, and the party's, by compromising with one or more of the enemies they fear.

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