The polls continue to look ominous for Mitt Romney. Although a good debate could change the dynamics, many are already preparing themselves for a second Obama term. Doug Mataconis did a fantastic job lining up opinion on what will happen to the GOP if Romney loses.
For some reason, I’m left unsatisfied.
These discussions tend to go around in circles. People outside the Republican party tend to ask over and over again: When the GOP will learn to be ashamed of their conservative base and start ignoring them? Conservatives within the party tend to ask: When will we nominate a true believing conservative? Others outside the Republican party argue (unpersuasively) that the latest nominee, if you squint hard enough, is actually the most conservative nominee ever. Conservatives argue that this can’t be true when the whole political class is drifting to the left – see our spending, our evolving social mores, etc…
Finally those outside the party argue that surely next time Republicans will nominate Sarah Palin and The Koran Burning Pastor and lose in a 50 state landslide, and only then will they learn that they need to ditch their insane base.
Everyone has a point, well except for that last one.
Slowly the conservative movement really is gaining the allegiance of more and more Republican officeholders. But at the very same time, this allegiance means less than it did before. The rhetorical identification goes up, but the substance becomes more diluted. In 2000 Bush tried to be a “compassionate conservative” which was both a nod to the conservative movement and a dodge about conservatism. In 2012, Romney is “severely conservative,” which is a direct pander and an untruth. Bush really did try to privatize Social Security. Romney really won’t try to repeal all of Obamacare.
This is a formula guaranteed to frustrate people in the conservative movement. I don’t know what frustrated political movements are willing to do, or what they are capable of doing.
But the GOP is configured in such a way that it almost never nominates a true a conservative believer. No shift in the party’s “mood” after 2012 will change the following:
1) There is usually never more than one viable moderate in a GOP presidential primary.
2) Because there is a giant conservative media apparatus that accepts failed presidential candidates into its salaried ranks, there will always be a multiplicity of “movement” candidates. Some are spectacularly unqualified for the job, but good enough at media to seem temporarily viable.
3) Every conservative with a natural base is offensive to some other conservatives. Huckabee had a natural base of Evangelicals, but was hated by free-market types. Steve Forbes was loved by a bunch of free-market conservatives, but he had no connection to religious conservatives. Conservative votes split in primaries.
4) The logic of winning is persuasive and when pressed, Republican voters don’t give conservative principles allegiance over winning. At least in presidential contests.
So my guess is that no shift of mood will fundamentally alter the Republican nominating process in 2016 or 2020. Instead the enormous electoral coalition that is the GOP will continue to see the kind slow grinding change of tectonic plates, rather than the kind of stormy change that pundits see in their mood.
The only way to a major eruption in the process is for a talented politician to synthesize the factional interests, the national mood, and his own biography into a powerful campaign. In other words, absent a once in a generation political talent, I expect conservatives in the next nominating contest will do what they always do: grudgingly accept a candidate that party elites deem a winner. And that the GOP will be pinning their hopes on a small slice of swing voters.