What Happens To The GOP If Romney Loses?
Some Republicans are beginning to ponder what might happen to their party if Mitt Romney loses in 2012.
Another week coming to a close in which the Romney campaign has fumbled itself from one news cycle to another while failing to really advance anything resembling a coherent agenda, and the prospects of a Romney victory becoming seemingly more unlikely every day. We’ve seen the Romney campaign tripped up over a video in which the candidate privately told donors that he was essentially writing off 47% of the American population despite the fact that he needs a good portion of that 47% to win the election, causing fellow Republicans to distance themselves from him. We’ve seen stories of infighting on the campaign itself, and Republican politicians speaking openly about what they clearly see as a campaign in disarray. The Electoral College outlook is looking even more troublesome than the national polls thanks largely to a series of very unfavorable swing state polls. As if to add emphasis to the wh0le sense of doom and gloom, Tim Pawlenty announced today that he’s leaving the Romney campaign to take a position as the CEO of a financial services industry trade organization. And, as if to make things even worse, the odds that the GOP will take over the Senate have plummeted precipitously in just the past several weeks. While it’s still far too early to say that Mitt Romney will definitely lose, the sense of doom is clearly descending over Boston’s North End, and Republicans, at least some of them, are pondering the consequences of losing to Barack Obama for a second time.
Commenting on a video discussion by David Frum earlier in the week, Rod Dreher endorses the idea that there should be a “civil war” inside the GOP in the event that Romney loses in November:
I agree with David, of course, that there ought to be some very serious reckoning within the party if the Republicans lose the presidency this year. But I thought that in 2008, in the wake of the Bush presidency and the McCain defeat. Nothing happened. Of course, this time the economy is still in the toilet, and Obama is the incumbent. How does a Republican lose in this environment? If the GOP standard bearer does lose, there should be Robespierre-like recriminations.
Here’s the thing, though: if there were a GOP civil war, who would the opposing sides be? The Democratic Leadership Council came into being after the Mondale defeat in 1984, offering new ideas and cultivating new talent for the intellectually moribund Democrats. By the time the Democrats went down to a third straight presidential defeat in 1988, the demoralized party turned to the DLC types … which gave them Bill Clinton.
Where is the Republican version of the DLC?
I actually touched on this issue last November when I pondered, before Republican primary voters had even started voting, what might happen to the GOP if the President were reelected. As I noted at the time, it really boils down to who the nominee would be:
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.
I still tend to think that this is the most likely outcome of a Romney loss in November. When Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, I speculated for awhile that a loss by a Romney/Ryan ticket would actually end up hurting the Tea Party agenda to some extent if the reason for the loss was related significantly to Ryan’s Path To Prosperity, and specifically his plans for Medicare reform. Given the fact that Ryan himself has basically said that his plan isn’t the campaign’s plan — although it’s entirely unclear what the campaign’s plan actually is at this point — I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
Faced with a Romney loss, conservatives will argue that they’ve been betrayed again, and I don’t think they’ll be all that eager to support another “moderate” nominee, even though the facts don’t support their “the candidate wasn’t conservative enough” theories:
[T]here’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.
To that I would add that Bush 41 lost in 1992 because the economy was bad, he ran a bad campaign that made him seem completely out of touch with the concerns of the American people, and he was up against one of the best pure campaigners to run for the White House in recent memory. Of course, this is a political battle, and since when have the facts mattered in politics?
More importantly, it has to be recognized that the scenario I laid out in November is the same one that the GOP has followed after every loss in a Presidential election in the past twenty years. The argument has always been that the reason that the nominee — whether it was Bush 41, Bob Dole, or John McCain — lost is because he wasn’t conservative enough and/or because he ran an incompetent campaign. Notwithstanding his turn to the right this year, the conservative arguments against Mitt Romney still apply, and will be easily remembered on November 7th if he loses. He’s a Massachusetts flip-flopper, they’ll say. He’s not a true conservative, they’ll argue. The script has already been written for them, they just need to take the name McCain out, and insert the name Romney.
The other important thing to remember about the future of the GOP in the wake of a Romney loss is that it is likely to be even more dominated by its most conservative wing than it is now. Regardless of what happens with regard to control of the Senate, the Senate GOP Caucus will be losing people like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe and gaining people like Ted Cruz and, most likely, Jeff Flake. Additionally, a significant number of the Tea Party affiliated House freshman elected in 2010 are in generally safe Districts thanks to the fact that many of them defeated Democrats who were already considered conservative to begin with, and thanks to redistricting. Additionally, even if the GOP doesn’t get control of the Senate this time, there’s a better than even chance that they’ll be able to do it in 2014, and the organizations like the Club for Growth are already talking about their target seats for those elections. In other words, the levers of power in the GOP are going to be even more firmly in the hands of the Tea Party and its affiliated groups and their supporters. That seems to me to pretty much guarantee that the the GOP reaction to a loss on November 6th will be to move further to the right.
Daniel Larison seems to disagree that this is the most likely outcome:
One of the more common predictions of what will happen after a Romney loss is that Republicans will convince themselves that they will need a more ideological, more combative candidate in the next election. This could happen, but it seems doubtful for a few reasons. After their 1996 and 1998 losses, Republicans ended up supporting a relative moderate running on a “compassionate” conservative platform for their next nominee. The desire to defeat Gore and indirectly reject Clinton was great enough that winning the election was the most important thing. The same instinct could prevail in 2016. Instead of a more ideological candidate, Republicans might decide that what they need is a “pragmatic” nominee without the baggage of someone like Romney.
I suppose it’s possible, and I don’t doubt that we’ll see the money people who have been behind Romney try to push a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie in 2016, but we’re not living in the late 1990s anymore. As I noted above, the conservatives are far more powerful inside the GOP than they were back then, and with the advent of the SuperPACs, the money advantages that the GOP’s traditional “big money” provide aren’t quite as big as they used to be. Moreover, after having Romney sold to them this time around I really don’t think the base is going to be quite as eager to accept another one of those pragmatic nominees again. No, I think it’s just as likely that a Romney loss would cause the GOP to veer to the hard right and nominate someone who cannot possibly win in 2016.