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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

From the Magazine: Would a Romney Loss Lead to Republican Soul-Searching?

Illustration by Matt Dorfman

Not long ago, David Winston, a leading pollster in the Republican Party, listed for me some of the empirical reasons that should be winning the election. Since 1968, Winston said, only six presidents had run for re-election at a time when the unemployment rate was above 6 percent, and five of them lost. (The exception was Ronald Reagan, whose unemployment rate, while over 7 percent, had dropped almost three full points since his election.) Since 1948, when the government started keeping such statistics, the country experienced a total of 82 months with an unemployment rate of more than 8 percent, and 43 of those months came under President Obama - more than the previous 11 administrations combined. George H. W. Bush's economy grew at triple the rate of Obama's during his last quarter before the election, and he never stood a chance.

Obama hasn't won anything yet, of course, and on the day Winston and I talked, Romney still had three debates in which to make his case. But in Republican circles, you can already hear the howls of agony and recrimination. “When you have unemployment that high, and the economy is perceived to be as weak as it is, the door is wide open for a challenger, irrespective of party,” Winston told me. “You have to lay out the alternative so that people have something to go to.” The main question facing the party, should Romney lose, will be this: Was the fateful flaw the candidate's inability to articulate that alternative, or was it the alternative itself?

Recent history would suggest that a second straight presidential defeat would prompt a serious rethinking of the Republican agenda, especially because the party would have lost four of the last six presidential elections (and the margins of victory in both winning elections were narrower than Michele Bachmann's mind). Democrats were in a similar position after 1988, when Bill Clinton and other centrists fought to modernize the party's fossilized message. A decade later, after Clinton's successive victories, George W. Bush sought to recast Republicans under the banner of “compassionate conservatism,” staking out more salable positions on education and immigration.

You could certainly make the case that conservative doctrine in 2012 is courting obsolescence. The party's core solutions to all manner of economic problems - the lowering of marginal tax rates and the loosening of regulations - had a lot more resonance in Ronald Reagan's day, when the highest tax rate stood at 70 percent (it's now half that) and before the unfettered banking system nearly took down the American economy. And while Paul Ryan may be right that most Americans are open to the conservative critique of costly entitlement programs, they don't appear to trust conservatives to fix the problem. This is why Romney's “47 percent” comment proved so devastating - not because he blithely dismissed the votes of nearly half the electorate but because he reinforced the image of a party whose real agenda was to dismantle the federal safety net and then go home.

Meanwhile, as the country grows more diverse, Republicans rely ever more heavily on old, white, male voters. “The path the party is on, which is to extract more and more votes from a shrinking portion of the country, a path that offers the middle class frighteningly little, is not a sustainable path,” argues David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and insurrectionist blogger. John Weaver, who ran Jon Huntsman's failed campaign, puts it this way: “We need to have a discussion about the future of our party. It won't be a pleasant discussion, as family discussions often aren't, but we need to have it.”

And yet, while the likes of Frum and Weaver await the Grand Debate, there are good reasons to believe they'll be waiting awhile, even if their candidate is beat. In that case, conservatives would have no problem convincing themselves that the blame lies entirely with Romney, who has mostly proved himself to be every bit the timid, error-prone candidate many feared he would be - and nothing like the model of management efficiency they hoped for. Political partisans will go to extraordinary lengths to blame the messenger rather than question the orthodoxies of their message. In this case, they would barely have to exert themselves.

Anguished Republicans might console themselves too with the idea that incumbent presidents are historically difficult to dislodge. Three incumbents have been booted from office in the last 36 years; all of them were weakened by primary challengers, and two of the three were further undone by serious third-party candidacies. Before that, you have to go back to Herbert Hoover to find a president who ran for re-election and lost.