The Republican Civil War Of 2013-2015?
I’ve written before on the topic of how the Republican Party in general, and conservatives in particular, might react if the party loses the 2012 Presidential election. With some scenarios positing that the Romney-Gingrich battle could last for months, and signs fairly apparent that hard-core conservatives still aren’t sold on the idea of Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee, the topic is coming up all over the place now. At The New Yorker, George Packer argues that if the nominee is Romney and the GOP loses, it will empower a reaction from the party’s right wing that will likely lead to a 1972-style electoral disaster down the line:
[W]hat if Romney wins the nomination and loses the election? This scenario is still the odds-on favorite. To deduce the consequences among Republican activists, let’s imagine a counter-factual from 1972: pit Nixon against Humphrey or Muskie or Jackson, a candidate imposed on the liberal Democratic base much as conservative Republicans feel Romney is being imposed on them. A Nixon win would have convinced the liberal base that the party had not been true to its core. The theology would have hardened a little more. Next time, they’d nominate a real liberal, a candidate of the grassroots.
It’s easy to picture hard-core Republicans coming to the same conclusion: Romney and the party élite betrayed the party’s principles (again, after McCain) and gave the country four more years of the hated Obama. Never again! Next time, a real conservative! (Go back another twenty years, to the G.O.P. convention of 1952, and Senator Everett Dirksen, of Illinois, a supporter of the conservative Robert Taft, pointing at Thomas E. Dewey, the party’s moderate two-time loser, and thundering, “Don’t take us down the path to defeat again!”)
If Romney wins the nomination and loses the election, the party will continue down into the same dark hole where Palin, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Santorum, and now Gingrich all lurk. So a sane Republican has a terrible dilemma, today in Florida and beyond. That’s what happens when political parties are captured by a minority of fervent believers.
It would be better for the Republican Parry in the long term, Packer argues, if Gingrich were to win the nomination and lead the party to what seems to be a certain, probably massive, electoral defeat in November. At that point, it’s likely that the Party establishment and the fiscally conservative wing of the party will assert itself by making the argument that taking the party down the road to Gingrich-ian radicalism was the wrong idea. In the end, it could mean a saner GOP in the model of men like Chris Christie and Jon Huntsman rather than Michele Bachmann and Allan West.
At this point, though, it looks like Romney will be the nominee notwithstanding Gingrich’s challenge and, as if to confirm Packer’s hypothesis, Jeffrey Lord at The American Spectator is already talking about a “take no prisoners” strategy if Romney fails to beat Obama:
If Romney is nominated the hard-edged bashing of Gingrich will vanish when the opponent becomes President Obama. Why? Because, Romney and the Establishment GOP will run the updated version of the Dewey-Ford mortgage driven campaign. After all. A presidential campaign, to quote Romney, isn’t talk radio. One can’t attack Barack Obama in this fashion. One can’t say the reason this presidency is an utter failure is because of an Alinsky-ite, far left philosophy. Nooooooooo. One must say simply and politely that Obama is, to quote Romney directly, just “over his head.”
In other words, if Romney loses Lord and those who agree with him will argue that it happened because the Romney campaign wasn’t tough enough against Obama, that it didn’t go after his alleged “socialism,” or that he didn’t bring the Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers up again for the umpteenth time. They’ll point to his loss, and McCain’s in 2008 and Dole’s loss in 1996 as another piece of evidence in support of their argument that the GOP loses when he doesn’t nominate a candidate that’s conservative enough. Of course, there’s really no evidence for this argument at all. Dole lost in 1996 because he was running against a popular, telegenic, well-liked incumbent President in time when the economy was booming and was, well, Bob Dole. I’m not sure that a Republican candidate with more personality than Dole would have done any better, but it’s fairly certain that Dole didn’t lose that election because of doubts about his conservative bona fides. John McCain lost because he was a Republican trying to succeed an incredibly unpopular Republican President in the middle of the most several financial crisis in a generation, and because he ran one of the worst campaigns in modern American political history. A better run campaign might have held on to a few of the traditionally Republican states that Obama won that year, but I doubt any Republican could have won that election under the circumstances that existed at the time. If Mitt Romney loses in 2012, it won’t be because isn’t conservative enough, it will be because he didn’t give the American public sufficient reason to fire the incumbent President.
Of course, those facts don’t matter in the middle of a heated political battle for the soul of a political party, and the right wing of the GOP seems to have convinced itself of the fact that all it needs to do is nominate the most conservative candidate and it will instantly win. The one example the point to in support of this argument, of course, is Ronald Reagan. The problem is that Reagan was not a typical politician and he was able to overcome many of the arguments that were made about his being too radical due to his personality, the skills he gained as an actor, and a connection to middle America that Republicans don’t really seem to have any more. Furthermore, it’s not even really true that Ronald Reagan was the “most conservative” candidate running for the Republican nomination in 1980; that title should probably go to someone like Phil Crane, the former Congressman from Illinois who was also a candidate that year. Furthermore Reagan didn’t beat Carter because he was “more conservative,” he beat Carter because the economy was bad and getting worse and, between the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States seemed to be losing ground abroad. The additional fact that Carter was a sub-part President and a bad campaigner helped too.
Noah Millman doesn’t think that the GOP would be torn asunder by a Romney loss in November:
Regardless of who the GOP lost with this year, I wouldn’t expect a profound soul searching. The Democrats had to lose a run of five out of six Presidential elections over two decades to thoroughly remake their party. If you want to know what will likely follow a Romney loss, take a look at what followed Dole’s loss in 1996.
The thing about that is that I don’t think the conservative base would be all that eager for another George W. Bush either, even if it meant winning the White House. Between the increased political activism by conservatives that came with the rise of the Tea Party, and the false sense of history that this community has developed by sheltering itself inside the talk radio/Fox News bubble, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a 2016 nomination fight that starts years earlier and ends up being much more contentious, with the result being a candidate so far to the right that the GOP ends up losing its third Presidential election in a row in 2016. Maybe by then, they’ll be willing to listen to the people that have been warning them all along.