A general election disaster could give the GOP reason to rethink its message
THE BATTLE for the soul of the Republican Party comes to a head in Michigan and Arizona this Tuesday and on Super Tuesday just a week later. The moderate home of John McCain, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and even Ronald Reagan is under a withering assault from Tea Partiers and Bible Belters. The conservative marauders are not only at the gates, but it looks like they may take over.
Maybe it would be best if they did.
“Conservative’’ in this case does not mean “fiscal conservative.’’ It means someone who is socially conservative - anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, deeply Christian - and believes that government has the responsibility to push those values in the public sphere. It also means someone who largely rejects the ability of government to accomplish much good at all in other areas, be they economic, regulatory, environmental, or matters of social justice. That’s why, measured by today’s GOP politics, Reagan now looks the moderate.
And his protests about his “severely conservative’’ style of governing notwithstanding, so too is Mitt Romney. The rap on the former Massachusetts governor is that he is not an authentic conservative. That rap, as any Bay State resident who lived through the first years of his administration knows, is completely true.
And we all know what will happen if Romney wins the nomination. He’ll pivot quickly to appeal to independents, positioning himself as a moderate Republican in the tradition of those who have gone before him. Should he then lose - a prospect that seems ever more likely given the economy’s turnaround and the GOP’s own ugly infighting - the party’s right wing will seize on that loss as further proof that it shouldn’t try to be centrist. Indeed, a Democratic victory in 2012 against Romney would be almost pyrrhic, as it would likely cause the GOP to shift further rightward, making it even more obstreperous and unwilling to cooperate with Democrats.
So let the GOP nominate a Santorum or a Gingrich and get it out of its system. Let the GOP have, if you will, its George McGovern moment.
McGovern’s defeat in 1972 ultimately led to a long rethinking about the Democrats’ message. Some positions, especially those that seemed overtly anti-capitalist or urged American timidity in world events, were abandoned. So too the GOP needs to find out whether its newly ascendant conservative dogma appeals to mainstream America. My guess is that a contest featuring Santorum versus Obama would be a lot like McGovern versus Nixon: Santorum would get trounced. Political movements may be about ideology, but political parties are about winning, and should a conservative Republican get thumped in November - and in the process, drag down a lot of GOP senators and House members with him - the Republican Party will have to reassess.
It may not have to wait until then, however. Over the last several months, Romney has been desperately trying to appeal to conservatives, veering ever rightward as one conservative challenger after another has risen in the polls. It’s been a pathetic thing to watch and has justifiably fed into talk about his lack of sincerity.
But there’s no way Romney can run to the right of Santorum. The former Pennsylvania senator’s positions on contraception (opposes it), gays (reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell’’), and women in the workplace (better they should be at home) are so extreme that even the protean Romney can’t go there. Nor it seems, can voters. Two weeks ago, Michigan seemed out of reach to Romney, with Santorum ahead by 15 points in one poll. Now, as Santorum’s positions become better known, it’s close to a dead heat. There’s a real-world lesson for Romney here. His fiscal message may be a potential winner, something he seems to have forgotten in his pandering to his party’s conservatives.
Democrats have been enjoying the fracturing of the GOP during this primary season. But even they would admit that in the long run, it’s better to have two parties working toward common ends than a circumstance where one party is uncompromising and unbending. The GOP will eventually come to that realization as well - either soon (which would still give it a chance) or in November (when it would have none).
Originally published in the Boston Globe on February 25, 2012.