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Pressing The Santorum Button

Joe Nocera uses his New York Times column today to argue that, in the long run, it would be better for the Republican Party if Rick Santorum were the party’s nominee this year, even though that’s likely to mean a huge defeat in November:

During the McGovern-Mondale era, the Democrats were exactly where the Republicans are now: the party had been taken over by its most extreme liberal faction, and it had lost touch with the core concerns of the middle class, just as the Republicans have now. When I spoke to Whitman this week about what the Republican Party needed to do to become a more inclusive, less rigidly dogmatic party, she said, “It’s going to take some kind of shock therapy.” Those terrible losses in 1972 and, especially, in 1984 were the Democrats’ shock therapy. Just eight years after Mondale’s loss, Bill Clinton was elected president.

What happened in the interim? In effect, moderate Democrats wrested the party back from its most liberal wing. Moderates like Richard Gephardt and Charles Robb began meeting weekly to rethink what the party stood for. One of the people involved in those discussions was Al From, who would later go on to create the Democratic Leadership Council, which became the platform for new Democratic ideas — and, for that matter, for Clinton’s presidential run.

“We had become a party that had stopped worrying about people who were working and only focused on people who weren’t working,” From told me. “The party didn’t understand how big a concern crime was. It had stopped talking about opportunity and growth.”

By the end of the decade, the Democratic Party, embodied by Clinton, was embracing what From would later describe in a speech as the modernization of liberalism: “Progressive policies that create opportunity for all, not just an entitled few; mainstream values like work, family, responsibility, and community; and practical, nonbureaucratic solutions to governing.” This retooled, more inclusive philosophy was successful enough that Clinton became the first Democratic president to win re-election since Franklin Roosevelt.

(…)

If Mitt Romney takes the nomination and then loses to Obama, the extremists who’ve taken over the party will surely say the problem was Romney’s lack of ideological purity. If, however, Santorum is the nominee — and then loses in a landslide — the party will no longer be able to delude itself about where its ideological rigidity has taken it.

An alcoholic doesn’t stop drinking until he hits bottom. The Republican Party won’t change until it hits bottom. Only Santorum offers that possibility.

This isn’t a new argument, of course. I said pretty much the same thing last month commenting on a piece that Jazz Shaw had written. And there’s certainly something tempting about it. For decades now, the GOP has been in a debate between those who think that the party needs to nominate candidates that appeal to the widest possible group of voters and those who think that election results like those in 1976, 1992, 1996, and 2008 prove that the party loses when it nominates conservative candidates, while the results in 1980 and 2000 allegedly prove that it wins when it does.  Of course, anyone who actually studies the dynamics of any of those elections, along with the economic conditions of the times, there’s not really any support for the argument. That doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s an idea that has become an article of faith among the hard-core conservatives at this point, and it’s on that  is repeated on an almost daily basis by the Limbaugh’s of the world, along with the conservative punditocracy. We must nominate the most conservative candidate, they tell the masses, because otherwise we’re going to lose.

Nocera is largely right about what’s likely to happen inside the GOP and the conservative movement if Mitt Romney is the nominee in November and the GOP loses. Once again, it will be said that the party lost because he wasn’t conservative enough, or that he didn’t “take the fight to Obama” by attacking him personally. The party will go off on another purity quest, and the ground will be laid for a 2016 in which candidates will once again be forced to out-conservative each other as they have this cycle. That kind of cycle doesn’t bode well for 2016 prospects that might actually have a chance of winning like Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, or even Marco Rubio. It’s perfect ground, however, for the likes of Sarah Palin. Democrats, meanwhile, will be looking at candidates like Andrew Cuomo or possibly even Hillary Clinton. The idea that a hard-right candidate will have any more chance of success in 2016 than it would in 2012 is absurd, but that’s likely to be exactly what the Republican Party gets if a Romney loss is followed by another absurd quest for conservative purity.

Conservatives won’t be able to make the same argument if Rick Santorum is the nominee, though. They won’t be able to argue that the GOP didn’t nominate a conservative if the party ends up nominating the most reactionary conservative in the entire field of candidates. They won’t be able to say the party shied away from social issues in the General Election if it nominates a candidate who thinks that the nation should re-examine a 45 year old Supreme Court decision that said it was unconstitutional for state governments to prohibit married couples from even buying a condom. They won’t be able to say that Republicans didn’t talk about God when their nominee is the most explicitly religious candidate for President we’ve seen since Pat Robertson, if not ever.

Oh, I’m sure there will be some excuses made. They’ll say that the “RINOs” abandoned the nominee, for example, especially if you see the GOP losing support in states like Virginia, or if prominent pundits like George Will continue making the argument that the GOP should give up trying to seek the Presidency this cycle. They’ll say that they were stabbed in the back by the dreaded “GOP Establishment,” despite the fact that, as I noted earlier this week, the establishment has essentially surrendered to them already. Intellectually, though, they won’t really have any argument to make. The Republican Party will have done exactly what the Limbaugh’s of the world have been saying they should do, and it will have lost spectacularly. The only logical conclusion that could be drawn from such an event is that their advice was wrong, and that the party needs to return to the sane conservatism of the Reagan era and the Big Tent that Lee Atwater wanted.

So in some sense, Nocera is right. If you really do hold out hope for the idea of a Republican Party that isn’t intent on driving itself over a cliff, perhaps the best thing to do is to hope Santorum wins the nomination and then watch as the chips fall where they may.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Oh, I’m sure there will be some excuses made. They’ll say that the “RINOs” abandoned the nominee, for example, especially if you see the GOP losing support in states like Virginia, or if prominent pundits like George Will continue making the argument that the GOP should give up trying to seek the Presidency this cycle.

    Oh, it’s way worse than this. When Rick Santorum loses, they’ll point to things like his support for Romney and Specter in previous cycles, his votes for things like steel tariffs, NCLB, Medicare Part D, etc. and announce that the real reason Santorum himself lost is that he was too much of a moderate. If only they had elected Palin, they will say, they would have won! They will resolve to become even more extreme and start looking for the mythical REAL CONSERVATIVE (TM), who will guarantee them electoral success.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Evidence won’t matter. It won’t change right-wing minds. They don’t care a bit for logic, in fact they embrace irrationality. They live in the Fox bubble where they are fed on a diet of delusions and resentments. They are, essentially, a cult.

    The only thing that will change conservative minds is if Rupert Murdoch or a successor decides Fox’s numbers are dropping and Ailes is let go. This isn’t about politics, it’s about ratings and demographics. If Murdoch comes to the conclusion that lashing his network to a fading demographic doesn’t make sense, then he’ll replace Ailes and things will change.

    The right wing is a cult. It’s brainwashed and brain dead. They’ll only change when the cult leader changes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 1

  3. Jeremy says:

    I’m with Stormy on this. That is exactly what is going to happen.

    The problem with the Santorum Button Scenario is that the GOP is not in the same situation as the Democrats were in the 80s. They had their moderates there to wrestle the party back to sanity. Pray tell, where are the moderates in the GOP? As you say, the “Establishment” has effectively surrendered to the crazies, and most of the surviving moderates have simply left the party (which, arguably, has contributed to it becoming more and more crazier, as per the evaporation thesis I saw applied to social groups.) They don’t have any Gephardt’s or Robb’s or From’s to save the party.

    As I argued over at United Liberty, Olympia Snow’s retirement and the effective demise of moderate Republicanism will mean the GOP will either cease to be a political party by 2025 or it will essentially be transformed into a conservative libertarian party that just drops social issues entirely. I’m finding the latter scenario to become less and less likely as this goes on, though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Mmm, sorry, Captain, but I’m not sure this Nocera fellow really has thought these items through all that clearly.

    The Democrats didn’t actually learn from those McGovern-Mondale fiascos. You have heard of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, haven’t you?

    As far as Clinton goes, you need to keep in mind that without Ross Perot it’s extremely unlikely Clinton would have been elected in the first instance, despite H.W. Bush running arguably the worst campaign in history and being saddled with an untimely recession and a poor job market. Then Clinton upon his reelection managed to pull off the amazing trick of not being able even to win a bare majority of the popular vote, despite a rip-roaring economy and a weak, unfunded opponent.

    Regarding the Democrats of the present moment, it’s the height of cognitive dissociation not to realize when Nancy Pelosi is your House leader and Harry Reid is your Senate leader then the inmates have taken over the asylum. If the Democrats truly had learned their lessons shouldn’t the leading lights of the party consist of people like Max Baucus, Phil Bredesen, Evan Bayh, Mike Easley, Brian Schweitzer, Joe Manchin, Ben Nelson and Ronnie Musgrove?

    Regarding the GOP and Santorum, it’s touching to know the likes of the New York Times are so concerned about the party’s long-term survival, but I don’t think we have to worry about our eulogies. In a two-party system it’s pretty difficult to make one party go poof and disappear. Besides, when a party on its putative death bed controls a large majority in the U.S. House, a large majority of the state governorships, near parity in the U.S. Senate (poised to increase even on a bad night this November), and possesses substantial power in the various state legislatures, including in fast-growing places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, et al., then perhaps death becomes her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 12

  5. Latino_in_Boston says:

    I can see the logic here, Doug. And I hope you’re right. But we know from social science that true fanatics don’t change their mind based on things like “empirics” or “evidence.”

    If you believe that only conservatism can win–that’s what you hear on Fox News and talk radio, on a daily basis after all–but I mean, really, really believe it. In your gut. To the center of your very core. What would happen if you saw Santorum go down in flames? Would you think: wow, this whole extreme conservatism thing which I’ve been emotionally invested on for years doesn’t win elections. I should go for a more moderate one, next time? Of course NOT!

    You would easily explain it away with two distinct arguments–although perhaps they would become interrelated over time.

    A) Only conservatives can win, therefore Santorum was not a true conservative. This is essentially what happened with W., whose conservative bona fides were never doubted before his presidency went down in flames. Now, you often hear about how he wasn’t really conservative.

    B) Only conservatives can win, therefore, they did win, but there was some sort of voter fraud from Obama and his minions. I have already heard this on multiple occasions from relatives and right-wing true believers about 2008. The combination of the New Black Panther Party and Acorn doomed McCain from the beginning, don’t you know.

    And I think that’s partly where the birther thing comes from. Just an inability to believe that someone like Obama could win.

    A landslide loss for Santorum might put the GOP on its way to coming to its senses, but it won’t be immediate, and certainly not obvious on Nov. 7 or 8 or 9.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  6. steve says:

    I appreciate your sentiments Doug, but every time someone announces the other party is dead, they dont die. The GOP will survive. We can only hope that it will morph into a party that believes in lower revenues AND less spending.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. @steve:

    We can only hope that it will morph into a party that believes in lower revenues AND less spending.

    Or better yet, a party that realizes that the issues of personal liberty and the need to be free from overreaching government needs to be seen from a standpoint other than purely “how much money do I have to buy more crap at the mall?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. Graham says:

    @Tsar Nicholas II:

    You have heard of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, haven’t you?

    Who could the democrats have run in 1984 who could have possibly beaten Reagan?

    John Kerry’s problem wasn’t that he was too liberal. He has exactly the same problem Romney has with the republicans. He’s a bland, utterly boring candidate, who seems totally disconnected from the concerns of the average voter. An empty suit.

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  9. Graham says:

    Derp. Dukakis. Wrong election. Ok, you have a point with that one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. An Interested Party says:

    …including in fast-growing places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, et al.,…

    Except the growth in those places is coming from people that Republicans are doing everything possible to drive away from their party…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  11. Woody says:

    This has been a topic of discussion within my political circle as well.

    I don’t know if the dynamics are there for the GOP to have an epiphany if they lose the Presidency this year. The rightwing thinktanks-Fox-talk radio nexus has been so immensely successful that I’m unsure any outcome would produce soul-searching among Republicans. I state this more from an economic perspective than a political one.

    Two reasons for this: the people within this tripartite organization are amply rewarded for what they produce (financially, professionally, and socially), and so why in the world would they change anything? The thinktanks are well-fed on wingnut welfare, and Fox and the talk radio stations have solid wedges in an immensely fragmented media market.

    Meanwhile, their audience has never shown any sign that they want any changes. There is little chance a Fox adherent will change channels, for they will be exposed to material that does not fit within their belief system (and of course, Fox constantly insists every other channel is extreme-left-liberal, reinforcing the troublesome cognitive dissonance). The Fox media properties will always garner at least 27% of the viewing audience, and they’re doing exactly what a private business should be doing: providing their core customers with what they want.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  12. Kit says:

    I’ve never understood the rationale for how a more-perfectly conservative candidate would ensure electoral victory. Would someone currently voting Democrat change his vote if only the GOP would put forward some nutter sufficiently bat-shit crazy? Or is it rather that some perennially discouraged voters on the Right, the far Right and living in swing states, just can’t be bothered to cast a ballot unless it promise to unleash the eschaton?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. An Interested Party says:

    I’ve never understood the rationale for how a more-perfectly conservative candidate would ensure electoral victory.

    Some sad souls have the complete delusion that the majority of people in our country are hard-core conservatives just waiting for the right person to lead them to glory…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  14. Ron Beasley says:

    The problem is that the Republican Party and the word conservative have been captured and occupied by the FOX/Limbaugh infotainment industry neither one of which is in it for ideology but for profit. No hope until that changes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. Peter says:

    Best-case (and not at all unlikely) scenario for the Republicans: continued economic improvement between now and Election Day induces more and more of the millions of discouraged workers to re-enter the workforce. Their return will cause the unemployment rate to rise, or at least hold steady, notwithstanding better economic conditions. No other economic statistic gets a fraction as much media attention or has anywhere near its impact on voters. Obama goes down to defeat.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  16. JohnMcC says:

    If there was a settled and stable definition of what “conservatism” means this process of Republican realignment would perhaps happen in one or two election cycles, as I think Mr Nocera and Mr Mataconis imply. What our present spectacle has demonstrated is that the right wing is in a process of migrating further and further in their chosen direction. Mr Santorum is suffering attacks from the right involving votes that made perfect sense to a ‘conservative’ during the Bush43 administration. Mr Romney was the ‘conservative’ opponent of John McCain. All the momentum is toward the right.

    So the best analogy is not party realignments like the Dems underwent in the DLC years or the GOP ‘southern strategy’. The best way to think of the Republicans of ’12 is that they are a revolutionary party. Which is what the TeaParty wished to make it, of course. So like the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it must follow a course further and further to the right until the ‘true believers’ are such a small remnant that they can convene in a large closet. At that point they can be ignored and brushed aside by better-organized and larger factions.
    But as others have pointed out, they are very far from that at present. They have a media and a selection of leaders for whom the current path makes sense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. KariQ says:

    It’s always best to be cautious with losing candidates and what they say about the party establishment. Did Goldwater lose in 1964 because he was conservative? Or because the Democrats could have nominated an old dishrag and still won, because of Kennedy’s death?

    In 1984 the major candidates were Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, John Glenn, and Jesse Jackson. Gary Hart was a centrist and little known senator from Colorado. He very nearly won the nomination over the former vice president, which leads me to question the notion that the Democratic party was held captive by the extreme wing. I don’t know that Mondale got the nomination because he was more liberal so much as because he was the more established politician with more ties in the party.

    In 1988, Michael Dukakis had liberal positions on the death penalty and was a member of the ACLU, of course, but he ran on the strong economy in Massachusetts and the improvements he made in government services. At that time, this wasn’t an unusual achievement to boast about regardless of party, the “good government” tack was commonly used by northern Republicans. Then he turned to the general election and ran the worst campaign I’ve ever seen. Shockingly bad, really. But in fairness, he’d already lost the election before he ever got into the tank.

    i really think it’s unlikely that Mondale or Dukakis were either nominated or lost because of their liberal positions, any more than Goldwater lost because he was a conservative. Their ideological stances may not have helped, but they weren’t the deciding factor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Carson says:

    The US has some major problems that candidates need to address:
    Parents that have children and then abandon them to relatives, friends, neighbors, or anyone.
    Violence and abuse aimed toward women and children: look at the increasing number of shelters for the abused – wierd, ridiculousl!
    Obscene salaries of “professional athletes” and “entertainers” that are beyond our imagination.
    CEO’s who lay off workers while collecting millions in bonuses.
    Judges who show more concern for criminals than the suffering of their victims.
    Corporations that gouge the public as they raise prices on needed staples: gasoline, food, drinks.
    (and the investors that drive up the price of gas – let them invest in GM or pork bellies)
    Elected officials who have no shame and openly carry on affairs while married.
    This is not some sort of religious statement, even though most religious groups would agree my above statements and that this country is in a decline morally while values have gone out the window. Our leaders need to speak honestly and openly to the American people about this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @Carson:

    Obscene salaries of “professional athletes” and “entertainers” that are beyond our imagination.

    Really? In a former career I was a sportswriter, so I got to meet many athletes up close and I never begrudged them a dime. Sports is the ultimate meritocracy – unlike, say, Wall Street or Congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Kylopod says:

    >the GOP will either cease to be a political party by 2025 or it will essentially be transformed into a conservative libertarian party that just drops social issues entirely.

    Why do so many people assume that GOP extremism only comes from social issues, and that a more “libertarian” version of the party would hold wider appeal? On the contrary, more voters in this country are socially conservative but economically moderate than the other way around, and a lot of the extremism as of late has been on economic issues (e.g. Ryancare, tax cuts on the rich). It’s true that the gay-bashing and immigrant-bashing will ultimately have to go if the GOP wants to remain a national party, but those are hardly the only things that pose a long-term threat to the GOP’s viability, and I’m not sure the abortion issue is a problem for them at all (other than sliding into irrelevancy if it becomes clear that the Supreme Court will not be overturning Roe anytime soon).

    >you need to keep in mind that without Ross Perot it’s extremely unlikely Clinton would have been elected in the first instance

    The myth that refuses to die.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  21. de stijl says:

    I’m not entirely sure that what I’m going to lay out completely explains the current path of the Republican party, but I’m feeling a bit bold, so I’ll put it out there anyway. Heck, it may not even be correct. So here’s my quite possibly BS armchair psychology:

    Maybe Rs kind of like being out of power but don’t really understand that consciously. It’s kind of fun – you get to throw bombs a la 1993 Gingrich without the worry of actually governing or dealing with the consequences of your choices. You don’t have to worry about the hard work of strategy but only tactics. Hell, you don’t even need to think about policy positions – whatever they’re for you’re against; whatever they’re against you’re for. Paul Ryan made the mistake of actually proposing something and got squashed for it.

    And if you’re of a dickish personality, obstructionism could be enormously entertaining. A lot of these guys came up through the College Republican ranks where this type of behavior was not just accepted but encouraged.

    Now even the audience is getting in on the fun – cheering the execution of a potentially innocent person, booing a soldier because he’s gay. Two Minutes Hate in real-life! And the looks on their faces – there’s a weird sort of joy there.

    Perhaps the R problem is not just the rightward lurch, but also lazy dickishness. They’re not looking for a purely conservative candidate but the biggest a-hole.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. No I can`t see them changing any time soon The right wing logic has gone so far into a dark hole. Unless they get more right wing media to change their tune, and stop beating the same drum. They have been encouraging them to say outrageous things for ratings. The Republican party has become a joke and it needs to stop. I do not want an extreme liberal society either, we need balance. We just need common sense

    If I was a Republican I still would Vote for Obama. He is a man who has never said or done anything remotely humiliating as these crazy Republican candidates have, and I would never want any of them representing my country with other leaders.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0