Regardless of the results of today's election, the Republican establishment will argue the party must move rightward and reinforce its most conservative values. True partisans will push for identical responses whether Governor Romney enters the White House or retirement. This reaction will not strengthen the GOP but hinder its future viability.
A Romney Win
If Governor Romney beats President Obama, Republicans will frame the result as a transcendent defeat of conservatism over New Deal-style liberalism. Policymakers, donors, and party activists will urge the swift replacement of existing fiscal, social, and regulatory policies. They will claim that Romney’s win—no matter the margin—signals a nation heartily embracing the most extreme of Republican values. The reaction will be to conflate a win and a mandate.
Four years ago, President Obama confused the two. He won the White House by a substantial margin. He grabbed a larger percentage of the popular vote than any candidate in 20 years and grew his party’s Senate majority to be filibuster-proof. The perceived mandate to pass legislation such as the Affordable Care Act overestimated support and underestimated backlash. The irony is that Republicans should learn from Obama in designing a legislative strategy. Yet, they won’t. They will repeat many of the same mistakes and likely in grander fashion.
A Romney victory will not signal an American public ready for Republican extremism, much like the 2008 Obama victory did not signal readiness for Democratic extremism. Americans will not elect Romney because of a hunger for policies that further isolate women, Latinos, and young voters. They will elect Romney because they want a pragmatic leader who will address the nation’s most pressing problems. However, if the Tea Party reads the tealeaves, pragmatism will be thoroughly absent and more extreme policies will abound.
A strong president could prevent—or at least moderate—this rightward march. Unfortunately for Governor Romney and the future of his party, he will be powerless to stop it. The Republican base is already skeptical of Romney, and based on his prior Senate campaign and gubernatorial record, this concern is justified. Conservatives will go to the polls on Tuesday and cast ballots for Romney not because they adore him or even trust him, but because he is better than their alternative. As a result, Romney will find himself in a difficult position.
If a President Romney sought to moderate policy, the party would revolt. If he worked to build bridges with Latinos and women by relaxing the party line on immigration and social issues, the party would revolt. If he dared incorporate compromise into his dealings with Democrats, the party would revolt. Moderate Mitt will face a 2016 primary challenge, and as a result, the former Massachusetts Governor has no choice but to be a “severely conservative” president.
A Romney Loss
If Governor Romney loses on Tuesday, the party’s reaction will be stinging. They will not blame conservative principles, the isolation of large portions of the American electorate, or the inability to convince voters of a suitable plan for economic recovery. Instead, they will blame Moderate Mitt for the loss.
Some in the party have preemptively pointed fingers at Hurricane Sandy to explain a loss. This argument will be fleeting. Ultimately, the party will claim their mistake was nominating a man who lacked truly conservative bona fides—a candidate who once supported gay rights, abortion rights, and universal health care.
A Romney loss will ignite passion within the GOP to move ever rightward. Never again will the most vocal in the party settle for a moderate candidate. The path to Republican presidential success will not be to redefine its appeal, but to double down. Jon Huntsman will not be the path forward, Rand Paul will. Moderates who can appeal to women and Latinos, like Susana Martinez, will not be seen as the future; they will be viewed as the problem.
In the immediate aftermath of a second Obama term, Republicans will do some soul-searching. That search may come up empty. Rather than changing with a changing nation, the Republican Party will reflect the proverbial definition of insanity. A Republican party that is obstinate will watch as states like Arizona and eventually Texas become swing states. They will also stand witness to formerly red states like Virginia and North Carolina trending bluer.
The Republican Party is not doomed. It will not disappear nor divide. It will come to grips with the realities of a changing society. It will learn that a changing electoral map will work against them in the future—no matter the outcome of the 2012 election. In time, they will realize their path to survival.
November 2012 will not be that time, whether Mr. Romney goes to Washington or back to Boston.