Home/Daniel Larison/Where Will the GOP Go If It Loses 2012?

Where Will the GOP Go If It Loses 2012?

Rod Dreher comments on movement conservative tribalism and ideology:

Should Romney lose, is there any doubt that many in Conservative Tribe will convince themselves that he went down because he failed to be sufficiently conservative — that is, because he wasn’t loyal enough to the tribe and its religion (which is to say, its ideology)? Because it cannot be the case that there is anything wrong with the ideology. As someone at The New Republic (Chait?) wrote a few years back, for the tribe, conservatism (as they conceive it) cannot fail; it can only be failed, by “house cons” and other wimps, backstabbers, quislings, and suchlike.

This mental habit is one of my least favorite things about American conservatism, in part because it makes learning from defeat impossible. But it is one of the most durable. Even if Romney implodes in November, it will survive, and even get stronger.

The Romney-Ryan campaign has given many different factions inside the Republican Party an opportunity to claim vindication for their respective preoccupations and causes. Because the campaign has avoided policy content as much as possible, its failure could and likely would be explained in many different, conflicting ways, and each set of critics would have some evidence to support their view. Among wonkish and reformist conservatives, there will be a temptation to blame the campaign for choosing and then wasting Ryan, whose personal reputation and reputation for budget expertise have both suffered damage because of the role he has been given so far. The argument will be that Romney and Ryan would have done better, and might have won, had they followed through on their earlier promise to make a conservative reformist case to the public. A related, distinct group of Ryan admirers will blame the campaign for “smothering” and co-opting Ryan.

There will, of course, be those who pin most of the blame of Romney for his dishonesty and lack of credibility as a conservative, and they won’t be entirely wrong. If Romney weren’t so lacking in credibility, he wouldn’t have to spend so much time ensuring the loyalty of conservatives, and if he weren’t so frequently dishonest he probably wouldn’t have such poor favorability ratings. Both of these have hampered the campaign this year. While there is truth to this, conservatives will say it in order to avoid accounting for the deficiencies of movement conservatism. However, Ryan’s presence on the ticket makes it harder to say that a defeat doesn’t reflect on movement conservatives at all, since his addition to the ticket was something many movement conservatives wanted and sought.

Critics of Ryan’s budget proposals will seize on a defeat to claim that it was his entitlement reform proposals that ended up costing the ticket in important states. There may be exit polling that supports that interpretation. Others will insist that entitlement reform wasn’t the problem, but rather the campaign’s cynical attempt to have things both ways by demagoguing changes to Medicare while proposing even greater changes of their own. Some Republicans will be able to cite the news of the last week to prove that the most damaging blunders that the campaign made all year were the result of mindlessly repeating ideological fictions (e.g., “apology tour,” that 47% don’t pay taxes and are therefore government dependents), and there will be some truth to that, too. The campaign has been such a confused mess and has tried to be so many different, mutually contradictory things at once that each interpretation will have some merit, which suggests that there will be little or no consensus on “what went wrong.”

One of the more common predictions of what will happen after a Romney loss is that Republicans will convince themselves that they will need a more ideological, more combative candidate in the next election. This could happen, but it seems doubtful for a few reasons. After their 1996 and 1998 losses, Republicans ended up supporting a relative moderate running on a “compassionate” conservative platform for their next nominee. The desire to defeat Gore and indirectly reject Clinton was great enough that winning the election was the most important thing. The same instinct could prevail in 2016. Instead of a more ideological candidate, Republicans might decide that what they need is a “pragmatic” nominee without the baggage of someone like Romney.

Depending on one’s preferred policies, the “solution” to Republican electoral problems will vary, but many groups in the party and movement will rehearse their usual recommendations. Take the issue of immigration, for example. If Romney receives as low of a share of the Hispanic vote as it seems he will, advocates for liberalizing immigration policy will seize on the defeat as proof that the party should have listened to them all along. Restrictionists will correctly point out that most of these voters are not single-issue voters and aren’t likely to vote Republican anyway. On foreign policy, it ought to be easy enough to point to Romney’s blundering on this subject to argue that the party needs to move away from hard-line hawkishness, but there will inevitably be a counter-argument that Romney’s failings on foreign policy are above all the result of his ignorance, inexperience, and lack of interest in the subject rather than the policies he favored. The latter argument will be undermined by the fact that very few hawks seemed to notice or care about Romney’s inexperience and ignorance before the election, but it will be a popular one because it allows hawks to avoid revisiting any of their assumptions.

Just as there will be little or no consensus on “what went wrong,” there may not be much agreement on how to fix it. Competing arguments may end up cancelling one another out, and leaving things much as they were before the election. Instead of adapting in the wake of defeat, it is probable that the Republican Party will keep muddling along as it has been.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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