Ever since the days of Barry Goldwater, many liberals have assumed -- or naively hoped -- that each national defeat would teach Republicans that they had overreached, and pull them back from the extremes. Instead, the opposite has happened: The lesson of every loss, even the routs, has been "we were not conservative enough."
The Goldwater smackdown in 1964 really did lay the groundwork for the Reagan revolution and the ensuing conservative era. But the loss to Barack Obama in 2008 -- and the toppling of establishment conservatives by tea party insurgents in 2010 -- has put the extremes in charge. Even someone as conservative and virulently opposed to the Obama agenda as Mitch McConnell has hired a tea party veteran -- and Rand Paul adviser -- to run his 2014 Senate re-election campaign.
So what happens if Obama beats Mitt Romney and the Republicans again, this time after the likes of McConnell made denying him a second term their main legislative mission over the last four years? The earnest-minded might hope that Republicans view Obama's re-election as a message to cooperate and a sign that their obstruction failed. The sober-minded might look at the number of ridiculous white men determined to make rape victims carry their attacker's baby and a primary campaign filled with evolution opponents and assume common sense and basic decency, or at least post-Renaissance thinking, might return on social and cultural issues.
But Frank Rich says none of that will happen. The only lesson that will be learned, the New York magazine columnist says, is to head further right. And Rich argues that's because there simply aren't any other voices left. The moderate Northeast wing of the party was purged long ago. The primary defeats of conservatives like Bob Bennett in Utah and Richard Lugar in Indiana taught establishment figures that any compromise has its costs. Even a moderate-conservative wing, Rich suggests, would have no leaders, let alone followers, in the national party.
As part of a new series of conversations with leading thinkers and writers about where American politics goes from here, we sat down with Rich on Thursday afternoon in New York. The former New York Times columnist and executive producer of HBO's "Veep" sees more of the same ahead -- a president who remains cautious in a second term, an opposition party that thinks it needs to be even more conservative, and a race among true believers for the party's nod in 2016.
Let's assume that Nate Silver -- everyone's Xanax these days -- is right, and Obama has a 70 percent chance of winning reelection (Silver's calculation moved to 74.4 percent on Saturday). What do you expect from an Obama second term? I think that there are a lot of people who fantasize that his second term will liberate him to be the lefty, transformative president they dreamed he would be. And that seems like a fundamental misreading of the sober and cautious and bipartisan president that he’s attempted to be.
I think you’ve answered the question. I don’t believe people change. I think we know who Obama is, despite the Republican attempt to caricature him as a wide-eyed radical. He’s a moderate Democrat. In another era, he might have been a moderate Republican. And, generally speaking, presidents don’t accomplish much in their second terms anyway. I think anything he does will be kind of incremental. I don’t have great expectations.
I know the things he’s said he’ll work on: tax reform, immigration reform, entitlement reform, a grand bargain — all this. And I’m sure he’ll in good conscience pursue it and perhaps succeed at some of it, depending on the mood of the country and what hand he’s dealt in Congress. But I think the idea that there’s going to be a radical difference — or even if there were, that he’d be able to effect it — is not realistic.
Your colleague Jonathan Chait argued last week that we'd get an immediate read on Obama, if reelected. He could fight the entire misframing of the fiscal cliff and break Congressional obstructionism. He could simply let these defense cuts mandated by the debt ceiling deal go into place, and allow the Bush tax cuts to officially expire. And if the House Republicans then refuse to raise the debt limit in the winter, he simply does it by executive fiat. But then in the last debate, he seemed to take that off the table already, when he said the sequester cuts would not happen.
It is a test. But, back to my answer to the first question—
People don’t change.
People don't change. I think there’s going to be some attempt to thread the needle — barring some extraordinary circumstance, like the Democrats take the House, but that’s not going to happen. But even if it did, I still think Obama would be a very moderate Democrat.
Does this mean that he has not learned the fundamental lesson of his first term: the raw determination of Republican obstructionism? The debt ceiling debate and the collapse of the grand bargain seemed to be when the wool finally came off his eyes. Would he really start a second term thinking these guys wanted to compromise with him?
I think he did learn that lesson, but that doesn’t mean that his actual action in the next showdown is going to be that much different. It’s not necessarily going to pay off in terms of the way he actually proceeds at the top of a second term. Obviously, eyes have been opened and he’ll be less inclined to fall for bullshit from the Republican leadership in Congress. Will he be played by people even like Olympia Snowe — who, of course, will no longer be in the Senate. But I don’t think that the end result will be all that different. It just may happen in a faster, clearer and more transparent way, with less dawdling and less waiting for a bipartisan miracle that’s not going to happen.
So how would the Republicans behave in a second term? You argued last week, in a piece that I am sure surprised some people, that the party will continue moving to the right no matter what – that there is no chance a loss in this election would convince them to become more moderate.
Whether he’s reelected or not, I think the party, the radical, conservative, right-wing party, is going to keep moving to the right. Keep getting rid of dissidents, purging dissidents. To liberals, something like the Richard Mourdock thing is, “Oh my god, this is the end of the Republican Party,” but, no. A lot of Republican powers that be circled back to Todd Akin once the spotlight was off of him. That is the party. For liberals to have the illusion that it’s going to change, or that they’re going to learn a lesson if Romney loses, is to make the same mistake liberals always make.
All the way back to Goldwater, liberals have expected Republicans to stop moving to the right after a defeat.
And they’re deluding themselves. Every liberal pundit — Tony Lewis and James Reston in the Times, Richard Hofstadter in the New York Review of Books — back then predicted oblivion and, two years later, Reagan was elected governor of California and the rest is history. So, if Romney wins, I think he is going to be a messenger boy for Paul Ryan.
If Obama wins, they’re going to say — I can already read the stories — "If only we had found a true conservative.” Now, they couldn’t find a true conservative who wouldn’t frighten children. All they could come up with was Michele Bachmann, Santorum, Herman Cain, Gingrich, but the next go-round they’ll have Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and others. That’s the way the party is going to go. They’ll say as much as they said of McCain, “He didn’t really represent us.”
How many times in a row can you say that after a loss?
Well, you can keep saying it because you keep saying, “They weren’t Ronald Reagan. We won when we had a Ronald Reagan, so now we’re going to find our Ronald Reagan.”
Except that Reagan would looked like Jon Huntsman if he was running in the primary field this year.
Look, they knew Romney wasn’t it; 75 percent, more or less, of the party opposed him in the primaries. The other thing that’s going to happen is: unbelievable rage at Obama. We’re going to see the rage of fanatics and spin keep ratcheting it up. The position has been — and this is even by relatively establishment people like Peggy Noonan, George Will -- “He’s an incompetent. Americans can’t stand him. They think he’s a nice guy but he’s in over his head. This is an historic change to end this collectivist presidency.” Because underlying so much of this, in my view, is race, they’re going to be furious. They really felt they could knock him off easily.
So when that fails, they’re going to be very angry. They’ll be angry at Romney, but they’ll forget about Romney in two minutes. They’re really going to be angry at Obama because they can’t believe that this collectivist black man has, in their view, bamboozled the American public once again.
Even in the midst of this economy.
Exactly, when all of the factors were in their favor. And they convince themselves that their point of view about Obama is essentially the universal point of view of everyone except minorities. They think all white people agree with them.
And not to be another deluded liberal: But is there no election result that can dissuade them from heading down that path? Is there no more tempered voice to say, you know, a party of tax cuts and abortion extremism just isn't going to be a majority party again – especially since, demographically, there won't be enough angry white men left for them?
Who would represent it? Who are the people in that party to be that tempered voice? Not that she has been effective, but Olympia Snowe is leaving the Senate. Who is it going to be? John Cornyn? John Boehner? They’re held in contempt by the right as it is. So, no. It just doesn’t exist.
This is a right-wing party now. And if you follow the history of the Republican Party over the past 50 years, it’s been a steady progression to drum these people out. To invite in Democrats, the Dixiecrats and segregationists from the Deep South, then to purge the old Rockefeller, Javits, George Romney wing of the party. It just doesn’t exist, except for a few congressional districts in the Northeast, but that’s it.
There’s not a single national Republican leader that falls into that category. You can’t count Jon Huntsman because Gary Johnson is more popular than he is. I don’t see anything changing. I don’t see who the leader of it would be. Hypothetically, once upon a time, it would have been Michael Bloomberg. But he’s not a Republican, and wouldn’t be welcomed by Republicans. I mean, Rudy Giuliani was supposed to be an example of moderate Republicanism, too. I’m not a Giuliani fan, but he got absolutely no traction. When Jeb Bush talked about it being a big tent party and leading the Republican Convention this summer, he was held in contempt or just laughed off.
And there’s about to be this generational shift where even the voices who were essentially establishment, moderate-conservative voices — the Romneys, the McCains, even in some ways the Bushes -- are really about to leave the stage to the Ryans, the Rubios, the Jindals.
Right. And, that’s why I feel that even if Romney wins, he’s a placeholder. If he loses, people won’t remember who he was 48 hours after the election in that party. They’ll be like, “Good riddance to bad rubbish, and next time we’ll find our Rubio, Ryan or Christie.” Whoever they want.
So the Republicans head further to the right in 2016, but in an America that's rapidly changing demographically in ways that would seem to benefit the Democrats. What's the strategy to compete?
There aren’t going to be enough white people left for them so it’s all about status. They’re never going to win the African-American vote when they’re still trying to bring back Jim Crow — it’s not happening. But, you could argue — and I’m not arguing this, I’m not saying it’s going to happen — that they learned that they made a big mistake demonizing illegal immigrants and, by extension, all immigrants and, by extension, Latinos. And Rove and Bush recognized that —
Bush got something close to 40 percent of the Latino vote.
They got somewhere between 36 and 40 percent. This year they may get 25 percent. This election cycle, nothing can happen. Romney went to the right of Rick Perry. But if they very quickly bury all of this — I think that for cynical reasons — I think they would take the argument that some elements of the Latino community might like a social conservative message. So we’re going to come up with our own version of the DREAM Act, as Rubio was trying to do before he was preempted by Obama with the new DREAM Act. They will no longer have a candidate that will veto the DREAM Act and effect self-deportation, whatever that is. And so they have a chance — and, frankly, a gun held to your head where you cannot win an election systemically if you cannot appeal to the Hispanic vote might help. They really have to change their ideology to do it. I also think it’s very revealing in this election that gay rights have basically fallen off the table. Because obviously they’re looking at polls showing that gay baiting and gay bashing and demagoguery on gay marriage is a losing issue, certainly with independent voters.
If that's the case, though, why can't they stop talking so offensively about rape?
They will always be the pro-life party. I think the fact is that they’re looking at polls showing it’s not helpful but they can’t really change it. The move to shut down Akin was real. If they didn’t feel there was a problem with having these things publicly stated then they wouldn’t have tried to shut him down. Mourdock has done some damage. So they’ll try to put that in the closet. They’re still anti-same sex marriage. Ralph Reed is still getting out the vote for Romney, but they’re going to put this stuff on the down low. Mark my words. Romney is already trying to put it on the down low, and took out an ad where the woman is saying, “He is pro-choice because it’s OK to have an abortion is cases of rape and incest and the life of the mother!” That shows that they know that they have to polish up that turd.
They’ll do it on gay issues, too. And my guess is, with Latinos, they will find a Rubio or someone like him — though their ideal candidate would be a Mexican-American and not Cuban-American — to move on that. And the truth is, their financial base wants immigration reform. Because it’s big business and it’s corporate America and they want immigration reform. So, if they can get themselves back toward 40 percent of the Latino vote — it’s not happening this year, may not happen two years from now, but could happen four to eight years from now. So that, in my mind, allows one to argue — doesn’t mean it’ll happen — that there is a way that they can outrun the demographic issue. If it was this party now — loathed by most Hispanics and Latinos in the country, with these policies on immigration, embracing Kris Kobach and the Arizona law and all of that — then, no, they’re demographically dead. But you can’t assume that that’s what they’re going to be doing. They’re not that stupid. We never thought that they would disown neocon foreign policy after Bush, and they have, basically.
But John Bolton and Dan Senor are still advising Romney on foreign policy. He can stuff them in the closet now, but if he wins, they'll be right there driving policy on Iran, for example, no?
With Romney there’s no way to know. Colin Powell said it yesterday, he said, "I don’t know in foreign policy which Romney we’re getting. The one in the debate? Or the one a few weeks ago?”
Or the one during the primary campaign.
Yeah. Over the long haul, and you saw this in the primaries, Romney notwithstanding, a return to a classic, vaguely isolationist realism foreign policy among the Republicans. And now we literally have Romney saying, “We don’t want to have another Iraq or Afghanistan.” And that’s where the country is, so, it could always be lying in wait, but ...
Iran is right there waiting. And it was only last month when Romney sounded ready to join Netanyahu in an attack on Iran.
Clearly Romney has decided within the last couple of weeks, “I don’t want to go there.” His policy just really does not differ from Obama’s. People just aren’t listening anymore to McCain and Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman. That’s all over. People do not want to fight another war. If you listen to right-wing talk radio, no one is saying, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” as McCain was saying four years ago.
There are two competing concepts here, though, whether we're talking about social issues or foreign policy. Whether it's Personhood or forcing a rape victim to carry a baby to term, as the party heads further and further right, these extremes have very real policy consequences – and the people driving the party in that direction do want to go there, and those ostensibly in charge don't seem to have the will to stop them.
If you’re running in a right-wing state. The national policy doesn’t have to be that, even if it’s in the platform as it has been for decades now. The truth is that I think the Republicans have always known that if Roe v. Wade were to be repealed, and abortions were to really become illegal, it would be bad for them.
It’s an issue I’m very concerned about and am very passionate about. But I feel they’re going to try to keep it on the down low. But, yes, you’re always going to have candidates that are neanderthals on this issue, and Mourdock is a classic example. But Mourdock is running in a very red state.
Let me back up and look at the coverage of this campaign, big picture. As somebody who has written as eloquently as you have on the way that lies harden into truths: Have there been big-picture lies in this campaign that have simply not been called out? There's lots of fact-checking now, but it doesn't seem to stop false claims from being repeated
I think they’ve all been called out. I think the fact is that it doesn’t matter that they’re called out. That’s the real lesson of this campaign. The real lesson is the now overworked Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote: Everyone has his or her own facts and that’s it. That’s really scary, because when a democracy makes its decisions without having the proper information, it’s going to go astray. Furthermore, when you combine that with the decline of journalism as a profession, largely for economic reasons -- I’m not talking about the quality of what journalism there is, but the economic precariousness of news gathering.
There’s less of it.
There are fewer facts available to get wrong. That, to me, is the biggest story: the rise of false narratives. But I don’t think it matters when they’re called out. That’s the really interesting thing. The right always was against moral relativism but now they’ve embraced it. “With our facts, there is no climate change.”
Can anything be done to stem the lack of faith in government, which very directly threatens the ability of liberals to convince people that government can be a force for good?
I think that everyone has to clean up his or her act. I was very taken with this Washington Post investigation that came out a few months ago on how rich everyone in Congress is, with Democrats equaling Republicans, as far as that’s concerned. So when you have a congressional approval rating below 10 percent, that means both Democrats and Republicans — that it’s corrupt. Not just that it’s dysfunctional but that it’s corrupt.
So yes, the Republicans have been horrible obstructionists and have moved way to the right. All of that’s true. But the fact is that the Democrats, including Democrats in Congress, have not set an example that’s inspiring or necessarily redolent with integrity. People look at any politician in Washington and they see a hack -- and usually they’re right.