Rod comments on the Republican presidential race:
Which do you think is the greater risk to the long-term good of the Republican Party: a Gingrich general-election candidacy and certain crushing defeat this fall, or a Romney general-election candidacy and likely defeat this fall? In the case of the former, the party would be forced to have an ideological reckoning with the base that would probably make it stronger in 2016. In the case of the latter, the pain will be delayed by years, but will eventually come.
One reason I am not persuaded by Packer’s argument about a 2016 backlash is that the more conservative candidates have consistently lost out in most Republican nomination fights, and they have done so once again this cycle. Each time there is frustration among conservatives with the previous nominee, and each time conservatives fragment and split their support among multiple candidates to let the same thing happen all over again. Another problem is that the runners-up in 2000 and 2008 were or were perceived to be to the left of the nominee and/or compromised by a record of moderate-to-liberal positions, and this put new relative moderates in the position of heir apparent and de facto front-runner the next time around. If Gingrich turns out to be the runner-up to Romney in 2012, that will be the third time this has happened in recent history.
That Newt Gingrich now stands in as the champion of the party’s insurgent forces is a measure of how complete conservative defeat has been. After 2008, one might have thought that Republicans would not tolerate the relative moderate in the field winning the nomination, but unless something extraordinary happens today and in the next month that is exactly what will happen. The main difference between 2008 and this cycle is that McCain took some obvious pleasure in distancing himself from rank-and-file conservatives, and Romney still keeps trying to court them. Relative moderates have prevailed in the last five contested Republican fields, and the results have been two victories (including the underwhelming 2000 win) and three losses. My point is that conservatives have had several opportunities before now to do what Packer thinks they might do in 2016 after a Romney loss, and they haven’t done it in a long time.
Something that makes it difficult to analyze the possibility of “an ideological reckoning with the base” is that there is no consensus among conservatives about what that reckoning would look like and what it ought to produce. More “reformist” moderates and conservatives in the GOP think that this reckoning would involve driving Tea Partiers and populists to the margins and developing a more “centrist” governing agenda, whereas many movement conservatives see Bush-era accommodations with the welfare state and so-called “big-government conservatism” as the things to be repudiated and resisted in the future. Dissident conservatives see both groups as too accommodating of the security/warfare state as well as the welfare state. The desired “reckoning” would look different for each group, and there are enough contradictions in Gingrich and Romney to provide justifications for each group to claim that their view has been vindicated by an electoral defeat.
Neither of them has been reliably or consistently conservative, to put it mildly, but both have indulged in their fair shares of inane anti-Obama demagoguery to demonstrate their opposition to the incumbent and to make themselves more appealing to primary voters, and both completely endorse dangerous foreign policy views. If the party chose either one, there would be the same problem of interpretation: did the nominee fail because he was too “centrist” and compromised, did he fail because he was spouting demagogic nonsense, or did he fail because he represented ideologically-driven militarism? A Gingrich nomination and defeat wouldn’t necessarily force a “reckoning with the base,” because conservatives would have ample evidence that Gingrich ran a large part of his presidential campaign to the left of Romney.