Just as there are founding national myths, there are also myths meant to allay the conscience after catastrophes.
Already we are hearing why the Republicans are going to lose the White House this year. Some are apt to blame the contentious, lengthy primary fight as the reason why Republicans are doomed. Apparently this is the first disputed presidential nomination process in American history. But John Avlon’s take at The Daily Beast (h/t Judy Morris) is so off-the-mark as to be clownish.
“A cleansing bout of craziness in 2012 could be just what the GOP needs.
“I’m talking about a nominee so far to the right that conservative populists get their fondest wish—and the Republican Party is forced to learn from the result. Namely, that there is such a thing as too extreme. . . .
“If Mitt Romney does finally wrestle the nomination to the ground, and then loses to Obama, conservatives will blame the loss on his alleged moderation. The right wing take-away will be to try to nominate a true ideologue in 2016.
“But if someone like Rick Santorum gets the nomination in an upset, the party faithful will get to experience the adrenaline rush of going off a cliff together, like Thelma and Louise—elation followed by an electoral thud.”
This is a troubling interpretation on at least a couple of fronts. First, it might be a little compelling if there was any precedence for such a move.
After Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat the GOP didn’t lunge to the right. After the 44-state loss to LBJ, Republicans re-nominated Richard Nixon, got the EPA, affirmative action, and fiat currency, then stuck with Gerald Ford in a post-Watergate, post-pardon suicide mission.
After George H. W. Bush limped to the finish line in 1992, Republicans didn’t respond by nominating extremist Pat Buchanan, as my local paper derided him just this Tuesday. Rather, it was conservative activists like Ralph Reed who plotted against Buchanan in favor of Bob Dole because, as Bob Dole might say, Bob Dole was electable.
But after Republicans lost the White House for a second time they nominated a real conservative fire-brand in 2000, right? Or was it a scion of a blue-blood northeastern family that is not exactly considered reactionary?
Avlon misses the point that Republicans have no history of impaling themselves on their ideological sword. If Romney loses to Obama in 2012, Republicans will be even more desperate to reclaim the throne in 2016 that they are likely to congregate around another “electable” moderate. If that happens it sets the table for Jeb Bush in the exact same way it was set for George W: A moderate who speaks in conservative language can swoop down on a party that is emotionally and by that time, intellectually exhausted from hating the Democratic president.
If Santorum actually does win the nomination he will lose to Obama but it won’t be over ideological purity. If purity was the litmus test Santorum would be one of the worst options for Republicans. Santorum’s recent claim that he opposed right-to-work for his state as a senator but would support it on a federal level as president is a triangulation and pander worthy of Romney.
Avlon doesn’t claim that it is the Tea Party per se that is pushing for this unelectable candidate. He uses the term “conservative populists” that are pushing for Santorum but juxtaposing it with the Tea Party means that he wants them related.
This leads to the second flaw in Avlon’s thesis: that it assumes that Rick Santorum is the nominee that is so far to the right as to be extreme.
A recently surfaced 2008 video of Santorum (h/t Drew Martin) shows that the former senator was pleased that the party was moving away from Goldwaterism and the belief that government has only limited, defined functions. And in 2011 Santorum vowed to fight the libertarian elements of the Tea Party, not the Tea Party in toto, only the components that were urging federalism and constitutionalism.
This is not to say that Santorum is not extreme. He is extreme in his views of executive power and the reach of the federal government but that is not the charge Avlon is making. If Avlon knew the first thing about Santorum he would know that Santorum is the antithesis of the Tea Party populists he is disparaging. He just can’t notice pandering when he sees it.
Avlon’s flawed understanding shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. In a startling contradiction, Avlon wrote:
“The Tea Party driven win of 2010 seems to have taught some in the GOP that firing up the base with extreme anti-Obama rhetoric leads to victories, and so candidates like Gingrich happily comply with talk about ‘Kenyan anti-colonial’ mindsets and ‘secular socialist machines.’ The obvious fact that this works better in comparatively low-turnout, high-intensity midterm elections than in the broader, more representative turnout of presidential years has been ignored, willfully or otherwise.
“Likewise, it’s been scrubbed from many conservative’s memories that the Tea Party in 2010 used libertarian appeals to attract independents—avoiding more polarizing social issues and instead keeping a tight focus on fiscal ones like reducing the deficit and debt.”
At one time and the same Avlon claims that the Tea Party midterm win in 2010 was marked by extremist birther rhetoric that works well in low-turnout events but that the Tea Party also utilized libertarian rhetoric that attracted independents. These sentences appear next to each other and aren’t separated by pages of text. And to suggest that the Tea Party is responsible for “secular social machines” is to imply that John Avlon thinks Newt Gingrich’s career has been personified by cautious, responsible rhetoric.
But Avlon’s piece is instructive in at least one way: It shows what the Tea Party, or what remains of it, will be up against in 2016 if the Republicans do not win the White House in 2012.
Forlorn Tea Partiers have moaned that there was no true Tea Party candidate in this presidential race. Faithful Ron Paul supporters have blogged until they were blue in the fingers that Ron Paul was that candidate to no avail.
But if Republicans can’t beat Obama with rising gas prices and a sluggish economy it will say everything about their disorganization and the candidate’s ineptness and less about their overall philosophical confusion. After all, what does it say about the Tea Party or “conservative populists” if in a presidential race that has already lasted almost a year candidates have risen and fallen due largely to questions about their electability and not whether they were “too conservative”?
And how much harder will it be in 2016, after an eight-year exile from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, for an outsider to be judged by anything besides electability when the original fire of the Tea Party is an even more distant memory?
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