In the late 90s, the leaders of the conservative movement that had swept Republicans into power into 1994 were guys like Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich, who also happened to be the leaders of the House GOP. This time around, the leaders of the Tea Party movement that swept the House GOP into power 2010 aren’t in the House leadership, they’re people like Michele Bachmann along with the countless numbers of non-politicians who get paraded before the media as Tea Party spokespersons. Because of this, the idea that it’s going to be as easy to “control” the base over the next four years as it was in the years between the Bob Dole debacle and the 2000 Presidential campaign is pretty silly.
This isn’t a question of “controlling” the party base. Before George W. Bush was treated as the de facto front-runner starting in 1999, many Republicans had already concluded that their losses in 1996 and 1998 proved the need for a Republican candidate who could compete with “centrist” Democrats on domestic issues. 1998 was particularly sobering because it is very unusual for the presidential party to gain seats in a sixth-year election. Republicans were concerned to neutralize Democratic advantages on these issues during a decade when they could get little or no traction on foreign policy issues. The public was not very concerned with those issues, and Clinton had conducted a hawkish internationalist foreign policy that left little room for traditional Republican attacks. As difficult as it may be to remember after the years that followed his election, Bush fit the profile of a relative moderate focused mainly on domestic issues, and once elected he governed more or less as he had campaigned. This understandably annoyed his conservative critics, but we should also remember that he had far fewer conservative critics during his first five years in office than he acquired after the 2006 defeat.
Mataconis’ comparison between the 1994 and 2010 midterms doesn’t support the argument he is making. Assuming he’s correct about the differences between the ’90s and now, the nominations of Dole, McCain, and Romney all suggest that midterm backlashes do not lead to the nomination of a more intensely ideological politician in the next presidential election year. I mention McCain because the 2006 election should also be included in this discussion. Even though the ’06 Republican loss was fueled by the unpopularity of Bush and the Iraq war, many conservatives chose to interpret the defeat as the public’s rejection of Bush’s “centrist” record and his truly excessive spending. They initially reacted to the 2006 loss just as Mataconis expects they will react to a loss in 2012.
Because many conservatives became obsessed with McCain’s pet cause of fiscally trivial earmarks after 2006, and because McCain had voted against some of the more fiscally irresponsible measures of Bush’s first term when he was still opposing Bush on everything out of spite over his loss to him in 2000, this may have inadvertently helped McCain. Then again, McCain was correctly perceived to be at odds with most Republicans on immigration, and he and Bush were indistinguishable on this issue. Immigration clearly hurt McCain more than his voting record helped him, but he was able to recover from that with some well-timed support for the “surge” and by pretending that he understood and respected objections to his position on immigration. In any case, many conservatives concluded that the GOP had lost control of Congress because it had “lost its way” before 2006*, but during the next presidential election they still proceeded to nominate a candidate whose domestic policy agenda was to the left of Bush’s when it wasn’t identical. Enough Republican voters settled for McCain, and they did so even when the Presidency had been in Republican control for eight years and lack of conservatism was blamed for a recent electoral rout. How much more willing to accept another Bush or McCain will Republicans be when they have been out of power for eight years?
There are different factions in the GOP, and all of them would interpret Romney’s defeat according to their own assumptions about the failings of Romney’s campaign and what the party ought to do, and many of them will not come to the same conclusion as Tea Party activists. While many conservatives, especially the “very conservative” ones, regard Romney as either a moderate or a complete phony, Romney will likely continue to campaign as the movement conservative-pandering Republican that he has claimed to be for several years. For that reason, he will be perceived as running to the right of any Republican nominee for the last twenty years, and many Republicans would interpret a Romney loss as a rejection of that sort of campaign. It is practically guaranteed that other factions in the party would seek to pin a Romney loss on social conservatism and social conservatives. This probably won’t have much of anything to do with the real reasons for a Romney loss, but the same could be said about blaming the 2006 defeat on excessive spending.
* Bush’s domestic policy record really was abysmal as far as traditional conservatives were concerned, but this was not why Republicans lost the midterm election.
Update: Steve Kornacki compares Bush’s 2000 campaign with Romney’s, and he touches on some of the same points I made above.