What Happens To The GOP If Obama Wins In 2012?
Nearly every conservative Republican activist I talk to seems convinced of the fact that Barack Obama is beatable in 2012, some of them even go so far to say that any of the current Republican candidates for President could beat Barack Obama in November 2012 (although most seem to qualify that statement when I ask them if that includes, say, Ron Paul). The idea that the President might not be re-elected is not an unwarranted assumption, of course. The economy continues to stagnate, unemployment is projected to be above or very close to 9% all the way through the end of 2012, and the Eurozone crisis continues to threaten to send the world into another recession, if not a full-blown financial crisis. Additionally, the President’s approval ratings overall and on the economy specifically remain pretty dismal (although better than one might expect given the state of the economy), and the public is nearly as pessimistic about the direction of the country now as they were in the dark months of Autumn 2008.
It all looks gloomy for the President, but that doesn’t mean that the President is doomed. With the exception of Mitt Romney, with whom he’s basically statistically tied, President Obama out polls every other Republican candidate in a head-to-head match-up. Moreover, as James Joyner and myself have said here on more than one occasion this year, history argues against writing off the President’s chance for re-election, especially at this still-early stage of the campaign. For a large number of Americans, the Presidential campaign won’t really begin until the conventions are over because, unlike those of us who do it on a regular basis, most Americans don’t spend their days following the ups and downs of the electoral politics. So, the President could most definitely be re-elected next November. In fact, one might say that’s still the most likely outcome at this point.
All of this has caused a thought to bounce around my head the past several days, and it starts with a simple assumption. Let’s assume Barack Obama is re-elected President of the United States on November 6, 2012. It’s likely to be by a smaller margin, both in popular vote and Electoral Votes, than 2008, and I think it’s safe to assume (at this point) that the Republicans will at least retain control of the House of Representatives. As far as the Senate goes, let’s assume for the sake of this argument that it remains, at least narrowly, Democratic, although its entirely possible that the GOP could gain narrow control of the Senate even if Obama is re-elected.
With those assumption in place, here’s the question I’ve been pondering, how will Republicans react to a second Obama term? There are, it seems to me, a number of alternatives open to them.
How the GOP reacts to a loss in 2012 would depend, at least in part, on who ends up winning the nomination. If the nominee is Mitt Romney as many expect, including yours truly, then the initial spin from conservatives, the Tea Party movement, and the blogger and talk radio crowd is likely to be that the party lost because the nominee wasn’t conservative enough. This was the same argument that many Republicans made after Bob Dole lost in 1996, and after John McCain lost in 2008. In reality, of course, it’s not at all clear that it was a lack of conservative bona fides that doomed either of these campaigns. In Dole’s case, he was running against a young, relatively popular incumbent in a year when the economy was in pretty good shape, and he ran what may have been one of the worst Presidential campaigns since the McGovern disaster in 1972. In McCain’s case, he was running against a young, personable opponent in a year when his party’s outgoing leader was massively unpopular and the economy had slipped into an historic crisis. Additionally, like Dole, McCain ran an incredibly bad General Election campaign. Nonetheless, the myth inside the GOP is that McCain lost because he was too much of a “moderate” and that the answer was to purge the party of such people. Hence, we saw the Tea Party rebellion and the purging of such long-time Republicans as Bob Bennett and Michael Castle (a war which continues in the 2012 cycle with campaigns against Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch, and others).
If Romney is the nominee and he loses, it’s likely the reaction will be the same and that, at least, initially we’ll see the activists in the GOP go on another purity quest. On Capitol Hill, this would likely have the impact of making the House GOP even less willing to compromise than it has been since the 2010 elections for fear of facing trouble during the 2014 midterms. The danger this poses for the GOP, of course, is that a re-elected President Obama is likely to have at least some public opinion boost behind him in 2013, as well as the ability to claim a mandate. Another round of obstructionism is only likely to cause the public to further lose faith in Congress as an institution, and could have serious consequences for whatever is left of the GOP majority when the 2014 mid-terms roll around. In short, a reaction by the GOP that sends the party even further to the right and less willing to compromise would be precisely the wrong reaction to disappointing election results in 2012, and one that Republicans would likely come to regret in the end.
What if the nominee isn’t Mitt Romney, but one of the Tea Party favored candidates, the most realistic of those being either Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich?
This may be the best alternative of all for the GOP, because while it’s likely to lead to the same kind of reassessment that a Romney loss would, it be more likely to bring about the kind of changes that would benefit the party in the long run. The Tea Party hasn’t been an entirely bad thing for the GOP. In fact, I’d say that without John McCain’s loss in 2008 and the rise of the Tea Party, we likely would not have seen the GOP take control of Congress in 2010. However, as we learned in 2010 and as we’re learning to some extent during the early month of the 2012 election cycle, the movement has also caused the party to go off on bizarre tangents at times and to take insane stands like appearing to be willing to take the nation to the brink of financial chaos back in August. The “no compromise” position that the Tea Party represents may be good for internal party consumption and it may make the true believers happy, but it’s not good government and it’s probably not a good long term political strategy. A loss in 2012 that gets pinned on the movement would likely re-energize the “establishment” and more traditional conservatives in the party and cause a backlash against some of the more radical elements of the Tea Party. In the long run, this would probably be good for the GOP.
Of course, all of the above will be magnified if the GOP somehow manages to lose control of the House of Representatives, and the infighting is likely to be worse. As I said above, though, that seems fairly unlikely right now absent the unlikely event of an Obama victory as big as 2008, or bigger. Between the power of incumbency and the advantages the GOP gained in redistricting in many states, it’s going to be very hard to dislodge all but a few of the freshmen elected in 2010, two of the most vulnerable at the moment appear to be Allen West in Florida and Joe Walsh in Illinois mostly because both of them have been pushed into unfavorable districts. The GOP may lose a seat or two at the margins, but they’re still likely to hold on to control. If that doesn’t happen, though, expect even more soul searching inside the GOP.
Losing isn’t always a bad thing, of course. If Al Smith had won the 1928 election, Democrats likely would have been trounced in 1932 and the GOP would have been the dominant party leading into World War II. If George H.W. Bush had won re-election in 1992, there’s almost no chance Republicans would have gained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years in 1992. If John McCain had won in 2008, there would have been no Tea Party, and the Democrats likely would have gained seats in Congress in the 2010 elections. So, loss can be beneficial. If that’s what happens to the GOP in 2012, they have an opportunity to reassess, or really mess things up.