There are few more essential projects in American politics than the reformation of the Republican Party. The party has always had its share of crackpots, anti-intellectuals, Social Darwinists, bigots, and swindlers, but they now rule the roost. A handful of figures like David Frum and Ross Douthat have identified their party’s most crippling flaws and proposed sensible alterations. But their problem, aside from being hopelessly outnumbered, is that it was their guy who lost.
Romney was the choice of the moderates all along. Conservatives distrusted him so deeply they threw their support to figures ranging from Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum in a desperate search for alternatives. They will now claim vindication: The party nominated a Massachusetts moderate who failed to run the stark ideological campaign, and therefore they lost.
The moderates will counter that Romney lost despite, not because of, his moderation. They’ll be right. But that is a complicated argument to sell and it’s not likely to succeed.
What this ultimately suggests is that the nomination of Romney itself doomed the moderate Republican cause, at least in the short run. If Romney had defeated Obama, his party would have torn itself apart. His moderate backers believed fervently that Romney had no intention of carrying out his radical positions, but his conservative backers expected him to do exactly that. Even if he carried out his commitments as far as he possibly could, the sheer mathematical impossibility of those commitments — the Paul Ryan plan is so batty that even President Paul Ryan and a Congress of Ryan clones could not actually carry it out to the letter — would have required some recalibration. Romney had no reservoir of personal trust and loyalty to fall back on with the right. A full-scale conservative revolt was the most predictable outcome of a Romney administration.
The deeper problem is that the moderate wing won the nomination without winning an argument. Romney won essentially by default, and to the extent his pitiful opposition mounted any challenge, Romney positioned himself to their right.
The moderates' best chance would have been to give the right wing the full run of the place for the cycle. Rick Perry was the man to do it — the only conservative with the standing and war chest to enter the race. Perry ran a comically awful campaign, appearing almost comatose in public. Jay Root’s book reports that Perry endured chronic back pain that left him in constant physical agony and unable to sleep, rendering his brain (which was not exactly brimming with excess capacity to begin with) almost nonfunctional.
If Perry had won the nomination and run the kind of hard-core anti-government campaign right-wing activists craved, the moderates would be getting a real hearing from the party faithful this morning. But Perry’s back problem may turn out to be one of history’s great counterfactuals — for want of a nail, the shoe was lost.