However, I think Larison is positing a Republican Party that doesn’t really resemble the one that actually exists today. The modern GOP is far more beholden to its activist base than it ever has been before. I’m not so sure that they’re going to sit back and accept a Jeb Bush type candidate next time around, and the existence of SuperPacs means that activist-supported candidates will be able to last through the primaries longer, just as they did this year. Additionally, regardless of what “party leaders” want, candidates like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have broad appeal with the people who actually vote and, if one or both of them runs, it’s not going to be so easy for the powers-that-be to control the situation.
Jeb Bush is the name that often comes up when people try to think of an example of what I called “a more credible and competitive” Republican candidate in the next election cycle, but I think that overlooks that there are national Republican politicians that we’re not even considering when thinking about a future presidential field. Maybe Sam Brownback takes another stab at a presidential bid, or maybe Pawlenty becomes the favorite. Maybe Rob Portman becomes the designated heir apparent. The point is that we have a very hazy picture of what the political landscape will look like in two or three years’ time. At this point four years ago, it seemed preposterous that Romney would be where he is today, but things have certainly changed.
Following Dole’s defeat in 1996, there were not very many people who thought that the GOP would end up rallying behind a certain Texas governor in the next election. At the tail end of the Bush years, it didn’t seem plausible at first that enough Republican primary voters would favor someone as who was as closely identified with Bush-era policies as McCain was, but they did. One might think that Republicans would have opted for more combative and conservative nominees in 2000 and 2008, but instead they opted for nominees who were arguably less so on both counts.
Conservative activists are undoubtedly flattered by the power attributed to them by outside observers, but the reality is that they try to oppose certain candidates in every presidential field and in every election they usually fail. In the process, they helped make Romney the viable candidate that he became in 2011-12. Who ends up benefiting from the desperate activist effort to oppose Romney this time? It remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule out another Pawlenty bid. If the GOP falls short this year in the Midwest, there will be more than a few Republicans with 20-20 hindsight insisting that they needed to have a Midwesterner at the top of the ticket, and that idea could catch on. (The small flaw with this scenario is that Pawlenty is an incredibly poor national candidate.) This is how someone like Portman might seem more appealing.
Despite the impression that the “modern GOP is far more beholden to its activist base than it ever has been before,” 2012 is the second consecutive election cycle in which the candidates beloved by the “activist base” imploded or otherwise fell short. If there’s one thing that the “activist base” prefers even more than having one of their own as the nominee, it is winning the presidential election. If victory eludes the GOP this yeart, the desire to win that election will trump almost anything else. Barring the unification of the conservative vote behind a single capable candidate, the same pattern will repeat itself as it has for decades: the relative moderate will prevail because candidates favored by the “activist base” are feuding among themselves for the right to challenge the moderate. Changes to the rules in the nominating contest will minimize the ability of activist-favored candidates to win enough contests early to remain competitive. I don’t know who will play the role of the relative moderate in the next cycle, but whoever it is should be considered the favorite for the next Republican nomination.