There’s been an internal debate among TAC personnel about which outcome next Tuesday is better for the health of the right. Obama’s victory in 2008 seemed certain, at the time, to shake up conservatism, prompting a re-evaluation of everything from neocon foreign policy to the GOP’s stenography for Wall Street. But it didn’t happen then, and I’m not confident it would happen if Obama won a second term. Not only does the record of the past four years suggest not, but recollection of the second Clinton term (or for that matter, the partisan stasis of the second Reagan and Bush II terms) also weighs heavily against hope of political realignment.
A Romney win, on the other hand, raises some surprising possibilities — because the ideologues most eager to see Romney prevail are the ones who stand to lose the most when President Romney turns out not to be a true-believer. And Romney, if he’s anything, is absolutely not a true believer of any sort. Not in politics, anyway. Under Obama, neoconservatives can blend in with the rest of the right in damning the president over misadventures like Benghazi (even as they call for him to lead us into more Benghazis by intervening in Syria or ramping up to war in Iran). Meanwhile, second-term Obama will pursue the same light-footprint interventionism that has characterized his first term, and the antiwar left will be mute.
But what happens if Romney is president? A rift emerges between frustrated hawks demanding a Dick Cheney agenda and business-minded Republicans who don’t want to blow their political capital on promoting democracy and carving out a legacy for Bibi Netanyahu in the Middle East. And what happens when President Romney tries to “replace” as well as “repeal” Obamacare? On any number of issues, Romney has the potential to tear apart the cynical coalitions that presently characterize the right. Meanwhile, the left might — I’m not confident, but just might — hold Romney’s feet to the fire on war and civil liberties. Drones and targeted killings and snooping on Americans might be front-page news again.
And then there’s Congress. An Obama victory next Tuesday might as well be Christmas for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who can be assured of enlarging their caucuses in the 2014 midterms. The congressional leadership is as much of a problem as the GOP’s taste in presidential nominees, and whatever helps Boehner, McConnell, Blunt, and Cantor only harms the prospects for reforming conservatism. But if Romney is president, the GOP stands to lose ground in 2014 and the Bush-era congressional leadership might just get cleaned out. Certainly its exit is likely to be hastened in contrast to the other scenario.
I recall looking around Ron Paul’s Rally for the Republic in Minneapolis’s Target Center back in 2008 and thinking this constitutionalist rebellion wouldn’t be happening if a Democrat were in the White House — because then the GOP would be back to striking its usual opposition pose as the party of liberty. It took Bush to puncture the myth of a fiscally competent, small-government GOP for a generation of young Americans. What effect would a Mitt Romney administration have on them?
The Democratic Party is intellectually dead, as Obama’s aimless administration has proven. Its greatest legislative achievement has been to pass the Heritage Foundation’s 1993 healthcare plan. Its response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has been half-hearted Keynesianism — too much for neoliberals, not enough for Paul Krugman — and a modest stimulus package. The left has no idea what it stands for or where it wants to take the country. The neoconservatives and various right-wing ideologues, unfortunately, know all too well where they’d like to take us. That’s why they have to be met by a prudent, Burkean right.
The trouble is that all this promise for rebalancing conservatism under Romney comes at the heightened risk of another war — Romney isn’t stupid, but in the face of any provocation, will he have the courage to respond in measured terms? Bush answered 9/11 not with limited strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda but with a decade-long nation-building project in Afghanistan and an utterly beside-the-point war in Iraq. What will President Romney do when put to the terror test?
Substitute one Republican name or another and that’s a question the country will sooner or later have to face. What can’t be taken for granted is that the odds of Burkean conservatism gaining a foothold in the GOP are better if Obama wins again. On the contrary: a Romney victory might, as the Marxists used to say, heighten the contradictions on the right to the point that reform becomes possible. But is it worth the gamble on more wars?