Political Animal


October 09, 2012 5:26 PM No Struggle For Soul of GOP On Tap

By Ed Kilgore

I’m working on a longer piece about this for TNR, but since Matt Bai addressed it today, I’ll go ahead and state the semi-obvious: no, if Mitt Romney loses on November 7, Republicans will not conduct the kind of “struggle for the soul of the party” that Democrats regularly hold after a big defeat. Sure, they’ll question Mitt’s suitability, and second-guess his strategy and tactics. There will be a lot of talk about how hard it is to beat an incumbent president, and even more talk about Obama’s diabolical powers over the media and minority voters.

If there is any ideological self-questioning at all, it will be that the ongoing march towards rigid conservative ideological conformity in the GOP didn’t go far enough to prevent the nomination of damaged goods like Romney, and/or to rein him in and dominate his campaign. Perhaps Republicans will entertain another ten or fifteen minutes of attention for heretical voices like Reihen Salam or David Frum or Jon Huntsman (just as they did after 2008), but that’s about it. Why am I so sure about that? Well, if they weren’t inclined to reconsider an endless march to the right after the last presidential election, they certainly won’t with the Great Triumph of 2010 as a fresh memory, and with the juicy prospect of a six-year midterm just ahead.

But there is a second, and more important reason. In case folks haven’t noticed, the import of the advent of “constitutional conservatism” and its continued ascendency is that the Right and the GOP are in the process of chaining themselves to a permanent, immutable vision of governance that for many adherents is quite literally a divine gift to the Founders and the entire purpose of America. You don’t “rethink” this birthright, or debate it. And the usual search of political parties for “new ideas” is a bit irrelevant. Yeah, you may argue about how rapidly it must be implemented, and how to market it as a good thing to segments of the electorate it might normally horrify, but particularly given the reigning belief of so many conservatives that trimming and compromise are political losers, all the arrows are pointing towards “full speed ahead,” even in the wake of another defeat.

And so, the post-election debate in the event of an Obama win will be, as Bait predicts, all about the messengers, not the message:

[T]he attention will instantly shift toward the new generation of potential messengers: Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal. And there will immediately be, as there was on Romney, enormous pressure to soothe and placate the activist base before making a bid to redefine conservatism for the broad center of the electorate.

And that’s if there’s any perceived need to “redefine conservatism” to begin with, which I doubt.

Now Democrats, on the other hand, are virtually guaranteed a “struggle for the soul of the party” win or lose—a debate that has been largely suspended in the emergency conditions of the last three years. But that’s a subject for another day.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • paul on October 09, 2012 5:35 PM:

    I'm not sure I buy this. Of course, republicans won't do the public soul-searching. They don't do that. But they may, is in the past, shift a bunch of positions and then declare that the next positions are exactly what they have always believed.

  • Mitch on October 09, 2012 6:11 PM:


    The GOP will almost instantly decide that "deficits don't matter" since their policies will cause the growth of such.

    But that's not soul-searching. That's just what the GOP has always done. They only care about the deficit when they are not in charge.

  • ClearEye on October 09, 2012 6:43 PM:

    Doubt this thesis.

    To quote Lindsey Graham, ''there aren't enough angry white guys left'' to win a majority in the shifting demographics of America.

    Christie, Jindal, Jeb Bush certainly would move toward more, um, tolerance, or at least rhetoric/platforms less aspersive to the emerging majority.

    More than anything else, Republicans want the Presidency. Most of the next generation of candidates clearly understand the need to open the tent.

  • dweb on October 09, 2012 7:41 PM:

  • Scott Farris on October 09, 2012 8:01 PM:

    I also am not sure I agree with Ed (a rare occurrence, but it happens). In fact, I wrote a book on the subject of losing presidential campaigns and their impact on political history: "Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation."

    What I learned in researching the book is that we obviously won't know the impact of a Romney loss (if that is the case) for a few years. After the Goldwater debacle, the pundits were sure conservatism was dead. Wrong. But I think there are some deep fissures within the Republican Party, far deeper than those in the Democratic Party, that could give historical import to a Romney loss.

    The Democrats are a collection of discreet interest groups, but the agendas of those interest groups -- labor, minorities, women's rights, gay rights, environmentalists, young voters, etc. -- are seldom in conflict. Each group is generally happy to support another part of the coalition's agenda.

    But the Republicans are split by world view. Social conservatives look at the world fundamentally differently than libertarians. Libertarians are pretty far from neo-cons. The interests of Wall Street and Main Street are often at odds. You even have the occasional theological divide between evangelicals and Catholics and Mormons. They've had a couple of guys in Reagan and W that were somehow able to hold this coalition together (which means we may have long misunderestimated Bush's political skills), but Romney is no Reagan and there is no heir-apparent in the wings.

    The Republicans are really counting on beating Obama. They despise him even more than Clinton or Kennedy, which is something. If Obama wins, and especially if the economy finally bounces back, it will further blow their minds.

    Without a charismatic leader emerging who can paper over the differences within, or articulate a clear vision with broad appeal (the latter is the key), I can envision a pretty vigorous debate ensuing among Republicans with factions trying to pull the party about six different ways. It may even pull it apart. That also leaves the question of whether Democrats are prepared to take further advantage of this potential strife and actually restore the liberal majority that reined from 1933-1971, or whether the opportunity will be squandered.

  • Anonymous on October 09, 2012 8:43 PM:

    Win or lose, the republican party (and all its disparate factions) will go where it has always gone since 1996.

    The republican party will go wherever FOX leads it.

  • Tom on October 09, 2012 11:51 PM:

    My bet: if the GOP loses, it doesn't have the resilience to re-group yet. It will occupy the position of a Southern based regional party that holds some congressional power, but little chance at the election of a President.

    Wall Street and finance capital will move toward the Democratic Party and a division will develop in the Democratic Party between a Wall Street favored faction and more populist left-wing wing of the Party. The submerged differences that surface now as Jill Stein and Occupy vs more mainstream Dems will re-emerge. The Democratic primaries of 2016 and 2020 will be where a battle will be waged.

  • Neildsmith on October 10, 2012 4:52 AM:

    Let the soul searching begin now. Win or lose, liberalism as practiced by the Democratic party has helped turn this country over to the plutocrats. Without the support of the American people, there has been no mandate for true liberal policies. At best we've gotten more benefits for old people and the uninsured who don't seem to appreciate the effort. Progress on social issues came from young people tired of hearing grumpy old white men and religious fanatics complain about gays and brown people.

    I think ultimately Obama will win re-election, but I have no interest in expanding the social safety net until the American people truly decide that's what they want. We're a long way from that. It's time to raise taxes and cut spending. Off the cliff!

  • esaud on October 10, 2012 9:34 AM:

    To do any soul searching, you need to have a soul to search.

    Therefore, conservatives, the whole cruel, dishonest, willfully ignorant lot of them are incapable of doing anything that requires a modicum of morality and conscience.

    And our corporate owned media are incapable of doing any kind of policing for them. The horrible associations that Republicans make with bigots, conspiracy theorists, religious nuts, white supremecists are all off their radar screen.

  • ottercliff on October 10, 2012 10:29 AM:

    If Mitt Romney loses the election, there will be more than "talk about Obama’s diabolical powers over the media and minority voters".
    I would expect that the Welch/Trump/Limbaugh class of mindless, hysterical screamers will be on the rooftops spreading a message of rigged election.