The rough contours of this conversation about the party’s future center on whether the party’s tone on immigration and the role of government have gotten out of sync with the electorate. Grassroots activists will argue that Romney was a compromise candidate who could never articulate the anti-government case for freedom and that’s why he’s having a hard time. (That is the argument Rick Santorum made during the primaries.) Others will argue that the Tea Party pushed Romney—as it will every candidate—into ever-more absolutist positions on immigration and the role of government.
The majority of the country believes the government does too much. So there the Republicans should have the winning argument. But not when its candidate frames 47 percent of the electorate as moochers and victims. When the party of lower taxes is arguing that taxes should be increased on some people, it might be a moment to call a timeout and get everyone to agree on the playbook. Is this Mitt Romney’s fault or did the party make him do it? Perhaps the discussion should move to the auditorium.
Immigration is the topic that comes up most often in these conversations about a hypothetical post-election debate. That’s because there is a direct relationship between the party’s ideas and vision and the demographic changes Republicans will face in a country that is getting less white. Some people, like strategist Mike Murphy, have been arguing this point for a while. “Republicans, including Romney, hurt themselves among Hispanic votes in the primary this year,” Barbour told Politico, arguing that not only did the issue hurt Romney in states like Nevada and Florida, but it gave the president an issue he could exploit. A veteran of George W. Bush’s campaigns argued to me recently that the Republican Party will have to go back to the campaign of 2000 to find the last time it spoke with an optimistic voice to Hispanics voters.
There is already a meta-debate about the nature of the conservative debate itself. Brooks’ article has now sparked a fight over whether a conservative is allowed to call himself a conservative when he is in disagreement with the Republican candidate for president. The Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren compiles a list of conservatives who disagree with Romney’s remarks about the supposed 47 percent who favor Obama, and Erick Erickson pushes back with his own list showing that conservatives agree with him (though many of the listed pieces simply say Romney’s “47 percent” remark won’t hurt him, which is different than agreeing with Romney).* The National Review’s Michael Walsh backhands Brooks and the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher weighs in defending Brooks. These are not specific debates about the future of the party, but the speed with which these voices came forward and then chose a camp is a sign of the unresolved tensions inside the GOP. And that is what gives energy to those conversations about the future of the party.
Any successful campaign weathers the moment when the wise people pipe up to say the candidate is doing it wrong. That was the signature trait of the Obama 2008 campaign. But there is also a pattern to decline. Negative chatter from your own party builds and leads to finger-pointing, which leads to early verdicts, which leads to a debate about the future long before Election Day. The Romney campaign has already experienced the first two stages of this cycle. It’s one more reason why he has to show that his campaign is alive and kicking. It’s the only way to dispel the post-mortems.
Correction, Sept. 19, 2012: This article originally misspelled Erick Erickson's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)