If you were paying close attention to the Republican debate last night, you may have picked up on one of the greatest examples of how partisanship works that you’ll ever see. Ready?

Mitt Romney was once again trying to figure out a way to sell his seemingly awkward policy on the auto bailout. Here’s the CNN transcript (via Jonathan Cohn, who makes excellent points about Romney’s shifting positions on those policies):

These companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy, just like airlines have, just like other industries have. Go through a managed bankruptcy ...


...and -- and if they go through that managed bankruptcy and shed the excessive cost that’s been put on them by the UAW and by their own mismanagement, then if they need help coming out of bankruptcy, the government can provided guarantees and get them back on their feet…

Did you catch it?

The great moment is that the crowd, packed with Romney supporters, broke out in applause at the words “managed bankruptcy.” Outside of partisanship, and in this case Romney partisanship, this makes no sense at all. Conservatives are not, as a rule, in favor of bankruptcy! Never, until now, was managed bankruptcy a deep conservative principle or battle cry. Nor was this a case of a Republican audience having a knee-jerk opposition to some liberal group or perceived liberal group — which, of course, would be a type of partisanship itself. No, as best as I can figure out, this is simply an example of highly informed Romney fans who have learned his talking points and support whatever’s in that rhetoric because Romney says it.

This isn’t unusual at all; in fact, it’s mostly the norm. Most of us, on most issues, follow opinion leaders in our parties, or during a primary battle we follow the opinions of the candidate we’ve chosen to support. That’s not true for everyone on every issue; we do have some well-studied issues that we really do care about and which we would probably dissent if our party flipped the other way. But most of the time, on most issues, it is true, even if we’re not aware of it.

My favorite example ever of this came during the Florida recount fight in 2000, when suddenly the nation divided over the merits of machine-reading compared with hand-reading for counting ballots. Not only did partisan Americans suddenly acquire strong preferences, almost always in accord with the positions of the presidential campaigns, but if you talked with people in November 2000 they would tell you, sometimes forcefully, that they had always had those preferences about ballot counting. Of course, in reality they had never given the question a thought in their entire lives. But that’s not how it feels in the heat of a serious partisan battle.

There’s nothing wrong with this sort of thing; it is what it is, and for the polity as a whole it is, in my view, quite healthy. But it still is remarkable to see in action.