The Republican Party wants very much to win November’s election because Republicans, like anyone, enjoy winning. But it’s entirely possible (likely, even, depending on which polls you’re reading) that they won’t take the presidency. That could be just the thing the Republican Party needs, panelists suggested at a New York magazine discussion on Thursday. Mitt Romney has a solid chance at a win himself, but Daniel Larison, senior editor of The American Conservative, put his finger on why even getting that wish fulfilled won’t be the best thing for the Republicans.
A Romney loss would surely please 298 members of an estimated 300-strong crowd that packed an auditorium at the Morgan Library on Thursday. Only two raised their hands when New York's John Heilemann asked who planned to vote for Mitt Romney. “A remarkably diverse group” for Manhattan’s media elite, Heilemann quipped.
But a loss might also be just the thing needed for the party of Lincoln and Michele Bachmann, panelists told New York’s Frank Rich. Rich moderated the panel discussion with Larison, NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein, and New York’s Jonathan Chait, in which the four reasoned their way through the possible impact on the party of an Obama win or a Romney win. From the conversation, it sounded like a Romney win would bring with it almost as much trouble as an Obama win. Rich asked the two basic questions that seem most crucial right now for anyone trying to figure out the future of the Republican Party.
What if Obama wins?
“What we did see in a second Clinton term is likely to be what happens in a second Obama term. Where there will be a greater effort to ‘get’ Obama,” Larison said. Chait agreed: “There will be a significant number of scandals, pseudo-scandals, and things that fall between those categories. And I think there will be a significant move by parts of the Republican caucus to impeach.”
Phillips-Fein, the historian, was more reluctant to make predictions, but she tried a safe one. Conservatism, she said, “is not going to be going anywhere, and in some ways a defeat could actually fuel the movement and cause it to grow stronger.” They said conservatism was dead after Ronald Reagan lost the 1976 nomination, she pointed out. But the right resurged. “What is it that makes them come together and persevere even in the face of defeat? And in many cases to grow stronger and come back with greater force after a defeat?”
The question went unanswered, but earlier in the evening, Larison had already supported its premise by invoking Bill Clinton: “If Romney loses, Republicans are going to be out of control of the presidency for eight years at that point. What we see is that when they’re in the wilderness that long, there’s a greater tolerance for accepting remediation to the party line or changes to the party line. We saw that after Dole lost in '96: There was a move to fight back against Clinton, which failed, and as a result of that they turned to someone who was perceived at the time to be a moderate … George W. Bush was perceived, in the 2000 cycle, as a moderate.”
So what if Romney wins?
“He has no leeway. He has no reservoir of affection to fall back on. And the problem is the standards within the party are so intense that they’re unreachable,” Chait said. He pointed out that the party’s hard core had never quite forgiven Bush for passing the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. “He needed to do that, right? He ran on that in 2000 ... And they all thought he should have just abandoned this promise … And even Bush, who had a lot of political capital with the Republican movement, they just turned on him.” We certainly have been seeing less of W. these last four years.
But Larison suggested Romney would get his share of leeway at first, with his fellow Republican lawmakers showing him deference simply due to the fact that he would be a first-term Republican president. “It’s not because there’s any trust in Romney himself but because it would advance the political prospects of the party as a whole.” And then came the line that brought down the house: “Because everyone recognizes Romney is a phony, you can never be sure who he’s betraying at any particular moment.”
How will all this get reported?
Earlier in the evening, Heilemann moderated a panel with Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and Maggie Haberman of Politico about the media free-for-all on the campaign trail. Twitter, Capehart said, is “the one big thing that’s been a part of this campaign that wasn’t there four years ago.” The rise of Twitter since the last election has, after all, turned the coverage into a 24-hour cacophony that can be as deafening as it is enlightening. The one-day news cycle is dead, the panelists agreed, replaced by what Marshall described as a “frictionless news cycle, which is to say you have no news cycle … the infinite news cycle.” For better or worse. We know what stories reporters are chasing, which is great, but, “your 10,000 followers are not interested in what the press corps was served for lunch,” Haberman quipped.
All this cacophony makes politics work differently. “Things can blow up quickly, but they also burn out quickly," Marshall said. “There have been administration-destroying scandals that have lasted 28 minutes.” Thanks to that, Heilemann suggested, there have been more lies this year than in any time in recent memory, because the candidates figure there won’t be a standout editorial authority to check them. “I reject the premise that earned media is irrelevant,” Haberman said. “The 47 percent thing was free media.”
But Twitter also brings a sense of democracy to news coverage, giving the reader more of a say in what gets covered, Capehart said. “People all over the country, and all over the world, are clicking on me and reading what I’m writing, and then telling me what they think about what I’ve written. People are telling me about stories that they think I should be paying attention too.” Heilemann added, “And then there’s the pure profanity.” To which Capehart replied, “and that’s just from you.”