GOP Beyond

Kevin Drum wades into the cacophony musing about the GOP’s post-2008 direction:

After every election, the losing party conducts a civil war. Sometimes it’s a big war, sometimes it’s a small one, but the subject is usually the same: Did we lose because we failed to appeal to enough moderates? Or did we lose because we failed to uphold our heritage and give the voters a real choice? The arguments are so similar on both sides that even the terminology is often the same. Liberals refer to their party’s centrists as DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) and Republicans refer to theirs as RINOs. Republican conservative stalwarts say, “If the choice is between a Democrat and a Democrat-lite, the public will choose the real thing every time.” Switch the party affiliation and you get the same thing from liberal Democrats.

So what happens this time around? It’s a little hard to keep this in mind at this point, but John McCain was widely considered the most electable Republican this year because of his mavericky politics and appeal to independents. He had moderate cred on immigration, campaign finance reform, and judicial nominees, and though he had a conservative voting record he had never been a committed culture warrior. If you thought that moving toward the center was the right strategy for the Republican Party after eight years of George Bush, McCain was your man.

So if he loses, what happens? Conservatives will have the upper hand, no? We tried a moderate, they’ll say, and he crashed and burned. After all, if the choice is between a Democrat and a Democrat-lite etc. etc.

Now I’m as guilty of this as anyone to be sure, but on some level this is all a bit silly. It’s more or less impossible to know which way the GOP will go inthe next 4 years, because we don’t yet know how a President Obama would govern, and what his standing with the public would be in January 2011, when the 2012 cycle would basically kick off. And those sorts of factors tend to influence where political parties go after a loss. In 1972,¬†Democrats responded to their 1968 loss by nominating a very liberal candidate, but at the same time Richard Nixon would have been largely unbeatable in 1972, so fewer “viable” Democrats ran and Democrats were more willing to put up a very liberal candidate. 2004 was a different story. Even though Democrats were much more outraged by the 2000 election than the 1968 election, George W. Bush did not appear nearly as invincible as Nixon had, and the Democrats nominated John Kerry largely on the basis of electability. Had Bush still been carrying 80%+ approval ratings in Januray 2004, Democrats might have gone ahead and nominated Howard Dean. Conversely, if January 2003 had looked more like Januray 2004, Hillary Clinton may have tossed her hat into the ring, and probably would have beaten Bush.

Republicans do much the same thing. They nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964, but there really wasn’t anyone in the GOP fold who could have beaten LBJ in 1964. 4 years later, however, LBJ was vastly unpopular, the Democratic Party was reeling from a split over Vietnam, and Richard Nixon ran promising to end the conflict. In 1996, on the other hand, Clinton looked largely unbeatable and, rather than turning to an ideologue, Republicans nominated an old party hand whose “turn” had come up, then followed it with a “compassionate conservative” in 2000, when the incumbent party was still fairly popular.

This trend can pretty likely be explained, I think, by primary voting tendencies. If the incumbent President is popular, he’s likelyto be fairly popular with independents and “soft-partisans,” so the primary electorate of the opposition party is likely to be made up of the most hardcore elements of the partisan and ideological base(s). If the incumbent President is less popular, you get more independents and weak partisans voting in the opposition primary. And this will, obviously, affect the outcome of the party’s primary. So I expect that that’s what you’ll see in the GOP 2012 primary. If Obama is popular at the outset, independents and moderate Republicans will be less likely to go out and vote in the GOP primary, and the party would be more likely to nominate a base pleaser like Bobby Jindall or Mark Sanford. Of course, if Obama’s popular, an ambitious and savvy politician like Jindall may want to bide his time and wait for a better opening to run, so it’s also likely you could see someone like Mitt Romney get recycled for a sacrificial run a la Dole ’96. But if Obama is realtively unpopular, and assuming there’s no competitive Democratic primary, independents would have a lot of incentive to vote in open GOP primaries, and the result could be a more electable Republican candidate.

The one thing I do know, however, is that in either event the nominee will not be Sarah Palin.