For Mitt Romney, the past week has been defined by bad polling news, brutal press coverage and some very public second-guessing from his own party. It’s not out of the question that he’ll still end up winning in November, but Romney’s status as the underdog was cemented this week, a development that raises a crucial longer-term question: What direction will the Republican Party take if it fails to unseat Barack Obama?
Conventional wisdom holds that the GOP will respond to a presidential election defeat the same way it did four years ago: by shifting even further to the right, placing even more of a premium on “purity,” and nominating even more non-traditional outsider candidates. I’ve been reluctant to embrace this view because of what happened the last time Republicans lost to an incumbent Democratic president.
They don’t like to admit it now, but the GOP’s opposition to Bill Clinton in the 1990s was just as feverish and unyielding as its opposition to Obama has been. And just like in the Obama years they were initially rewarded for it, with a landslide triumph in the 1994 midterms. Also just like today, the Clinton-era GOP fielded a presidential challenger with a reputation less conservative than the party base’s mood, Bob Dole.
But when Dole was thumped by Clinton in 1996, Republicans became somewhat more pragmatic. Yes, they did still impeach Clinton, but they also compromised with him in 1997 – giving ground on Clinton’s children’s health insurance plan in exchange for a capital gains tax cut – and rallied around a presidential candidate in 2000 whose “compassionate conservatism” eschewed the overt hostility to government that had defined the Newt Gingrich-led GOP revolution of ’94. Having lost to Clinton in the 1995 government shutdown, the ’96 election, the 1998 midterms and the ’98-’99 impeachment battle, Republicans opted for a strategy of mimicry. Clinton, they concluded, had won by communicating warmth and compassion and by painting the GOP as cold and heartless. In Bush, they believed, they’d found their own Clinton.
My thought has been that the GOP might draw a similar lesson from a loss this year. But what I’ve seen this week has changed my mind.
If there’s been a dominant theme in the response of conservative opinion leaders to Obama’s recent surge, it’s been this: How the &%$@ can this be happening?! On his radio show Monday, Rush Limbaugh put it this way: "If Obama wins, let me tell you what it's the end of: The Republican Party. There's going to be a third party that's going to be oriented toward conservatism.” Laura Ingraham struck a similar note the same day: “If you can't beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party. Shut it down, start new, with new people. Because this is a gimme election, or at least it should be.”
It’s worth noting that this is not actually a gimme election for the GOP. Economic conditions are bad enough to make President Obama vulnerable, but the economy is growing enough that political science models point to a close race, or even a slight Obama advantage. But this is not at all how those on the right feel. Their assumption (which was reinforced by the 2010 midterms) has always been that stubbornly high unemployment would automatically prompt swing voters to turn on Obama in 2012. It is genuinely surprising and unnerving to them to realize that this might not happen, and their response is to blame Romney and the Republican leaders who enabled him.
This is a key difference from the late 1990s. The conclusion of Republicans after the ’96 election was not that Dole had blown a golden opportunity; it was that Clinton had beaten them with fake empathy and demagoguery. Grudgingly, they came to acknowledge Clinton’s political skills and the connection he’d forged with the public; in a way, they came to respect him (and yes, again, I realize they still impeached him). Based on what we’re hearing now, though, Obama won’t win any new respect from the right if he prevails in two months. Instead, conservatives will regard him as the fluke winner of an election he had no business even being competitive in – the lucky beneficiary of the opposition party’s decision to field a flawed candidate who wouldn’t and couldn’t sell real conservatism to the public.
Obama has argued that the GOP’s “fever” will be broken if he manages to win reelection, but it’s hard to see how this will happen if Republicans refuse to give him any credit for a victory. When he won in 2008, conservatives told themselves that it was an accident that they’d enabled by standing by as Bush gave conservatism a bad name during his presidency. Thus did they launch the two-front war that has defined the last four years – one against Obama and the other against ideological apostates and establishment-types on their own side. The result has been a rise in the number of true believer ideologues in elected positions and the silencing of formerly pragmatic Republicans, who fear that any openness to compromise might lead to a career-ending GOP primary challenge.
It looks like Republicans are preparing to treat a 2012 Obama win as another accident. And if they do, then the fever will live on.