There is a civil war gathering in the Republican Party. It looks more and more like a dispirited and disappointed collection of factions, preparing to lay blame for a lost presidential election and to do battle to shape a new direction for the Grand Old Party.
Last week the view hardened that the Republican nominee was in close to terminal trouble. Having lost the summer as he let the Obama campaign define him, having lost the conventions when he let Clint Eastwood step all over his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney spectacularly lost his head on Sept. 11 during the mob attack on U.S. diplomats in Egypt and Libya. He came across as a low-life opportunist rushing to exploit a national tragedy in order to score political points and then doubling down on this venal dumbness with a smirking and contentious press conference. This week he may well have finished the job, with a video leaking of him referring to 47 percent of the electorate as government moochers.
Romney’s advisers have taken to bashing the press for covering the bad news, a near-certain sign of a losing campaign, as is the simultaneous effort to quarrel with the methodology of polls showing him trailing in the battleground states with almost no way of reaching 270 electoral votes. The surveys were largely in the field before Romney’s graceless and craven charge that the Obama administration sympathized with those who murdered the nation’s ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. More polls are on the way, and for Mitt the Knife, with his self-inflicted wounds, most of the numbers won’t be pretty.
John Heilemann, who knows a game change when he sees it, rendered a damning verdict in New York: “Romney … badly missed the mark.” Heilemann cited the array of GOP leaders, strategists, and commentators who declined to offer even faint support or instead outright rebuked their own candidate, on and off the record. He pointed to the broader narrative emerging in the media across the ideological spectrum: Romney is losing, knows he is losing, and is starting to panic.
There are the ritual caveats. The Republican standard-bearer could transform the race during the debates. Despite the Obama enterprise’s predictable and tactically savvy efforts to pump up the deflated expectations for his performance, Romney seems unlikely to morph into a latter day John F. Kennedy. It’s far more likely that he will be on the defensive about his false claims and his Medicare-shredding, Social Security–threatening, education-slashing, middle-class tax-raising policies, all designed to shower more money on those who already have the most.
Moreover, you can’t run on the economy if you don’t have specific economic proposals—or won’t answer basic questions about a 59-point plan that, in critical areas, offers zero details. In the latest New York Times/CBS numbers, the president now leads where Romney had for months: which candidate would “do a better job handling the economy and unemployment?” If Romney doesn’t have the economy, what can he run on? Banning contraception? Or bankrupting the auto industry?
Or maybe exogenous events will ride to the rescue. But one of them, last week’s Federal Reserve decision to launch an open-ended third round of “quantitative easing,” helps the stock market and Obama in the short run and the unemployed over a longer term. The decision strengthens perceptions that the nation is on the right track, a sentiment already on the rise in the wake of Bill Clinton’s and President Obama’s convention speeches. Chasing another news cycle and the tale of his own flagging campaign, Romney promptly and predictably condemned the Fed for doing its statutory job, which is not only to control inflation but also to promote job creation and full employment. It was a transparent tic from a candidate who’s been rooting for a slowdown all along.
What else is left, another foreign crisis? First, that’s when Americans tend to rally around a president, especially one who’s demonstrated coolness, judgment, and a sure sense of command, which is exactly what Obama has done. He’s in an extraordinary position for a Democrat of holding a decided advantage on foreign policy, national security, and fighting terrorism. In contrast, Romney instinctively says the wrong thing, which frequently makes him look not only out of touch but out of his depth, unready for a job that demands the capacity to cope with unanticipated and potentially mortal dangers.
And Romney won’t make up lost ground by pursuing a makeover on daytime TV. Last week he told Kelly Ripa that he’s a “fan” of Snooki from Jersey Shore and likes to sleep wearing “as little as possible.” The latter elicits an image we didn’t need. The show was taped as the Middle East upheaval escalated. It wasn’t humanizing, but cringe-inducing. “Jersey Shore canceled—and Romney soon will be,” was the reaction of one Republican pro.
After the first debate, see if the doubts become a rout. One measure will be the conduct of the Republican super PACs. The corpulent moneybags of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson probably will continue to flow into the presidential ad wars; after all, Adelson stuck with Newt Gingrich as Gingrich struck out in the Republican primaries. But hardheaded operatives like Karl Rove could shift their resources to Senate and House contests. They’ll deny it even if they do it. And it wouldn’t be good news for Democrats; the possibility—or probability—is already worrying party officials.
Such a scenario also would set the stage for the GOP’s post-Romney civil war. The Tea Party Republicans who detest, or more accurately hate, this president will be maddened by his reelection. They will rage against it as illegitimate, stolen, un-American. You name it, they’ll say it. And they will tear at the GOP’s 2012 nominee as insufficiently conservative and insist that Republicans in the Senate and House block a second-term Obama at every turn.
A prudent party might venture at least a measure of cooperation and compromise, to prevent the standing of Republicans from collapsing as the economy moves back to prosperity. This is what smart GOP strategists will recommend. And it’s precisely what John Boehner will fear to do lest he lose his House speakership—or with hope, his minority leadership—to the lean and hungry Eric Cantor.
So with Romney consigned in 2013 to his four-car elevator mansion in La Jolla, Calif., the president may face daunting challenges to governing even as he once again reaches across the aisle. His mandate could prove momentary, which is what happened to Harry Truman, who achieved almost nothing domestically in the four years after his upset win in 1948. At least this time, the Supreme Court will be saved from a right-wing coup and health-care reform won’t be dispatched to extremist defenestration. And Democrats could hold the high ground for elections to come.
This outcome—in an Obama second term, in 2016, and campaigns beyond—will be magnified or modulated by the course of the irrepressible conflict between the Jeb Bush Republicans and the Paul Ryan Republicans. The two men represent very different paths. Bush stands for a tempered conservatism; he understands the impending demographic doom of a reactionary, anti-Hispanic Republican Party. He’s writing a book on immigration; as he said this summer: “Don’t just ... say immediately we must have controlled borders. Change the tone ... think we need a broader approach.” Ryan, on the other hand, champions a hardline approach on immigration, along with virtual repeal of the New Deal and the social progress of the 1960s.
Bush’s attitude—I’ll borrow from his father and call it “a kinder, gentler” conservatism—could be broadly acceptable in the country, even if his brother George was all but anathema at the 2012 Republican convention. Ryan is out of step with the majority of Americans not only on immigration but on his budget plans and across a wide range of domestic policy. If Romney goes down, then Bush, the practical choice, and Ryan, likely to be lionized on the right, will be the 2016 front-runners for each faction of the GOP. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill will have to determine whether to be modestly practical—or relentlessly ideological.
Which way will this civil war go?
Undoubtedly it will be bitter. The true believers will fulminate that they were tricked by the establishment into accepting Romney, John McCain, and free-spending, big-government fellow traveler George W. Bush. The Tea Partiers are a minority in America but almost certainly a majority in what could become a smaller and smaller Republican Party. And the GOP’s experience in California suggests that one beating, or even several, may not yield a GOP self-correction but a dug-in revanchism. The state party’s response has been to lurch rightward. The result, as McCain’s chief 2008 strategist Steve Schmidt predicts, is that Republicans could soon become “the third party” in the nation’s largest state—behind Democrats and independents.
In an America where the party of angry white men increasingly speaks for and to a permanent minority, it could take another defeat and maybe another before the GOP comes to its senses. Surely Romney himself would have been better off in the general election if he had defended his Massachusetts health-care reform and sounded occasional notes of pragmatism and compassion. But then, of course, he never would have been the nominee. He could even have let us assume he wore pajamas to bed. Now hovering over his apparently desperate march toward a concession speech is the specter of Republicans fighting their protracted civil war. Someday, somehow, someone will do for the conservative side of our politics what Bill Clinton did as the progressive who brought Democrats back to the mainstream. But post-2012, maybe even Ryan won’t be pure enough; it could be full-Santorum ahead.