Why If Romney Loses, the GOP Will Declare War on Itself

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 18 2012 7:42 PM

The Coming War Within the Republican Party

GOP wise men are rushing forward with Romney post-mortems. Never a good sign.

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Are the GOP big thinkers already starting to look beyond Romney?

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages.

After the presidential campaign ends, think tanks and universities will invite wise partisans to explain why their party lost and how to rebound. Some Republicans are already working on their talking points.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

A pattern has emerged in my conversations with GOP campaign veterans over the last 10 days. Here is how these conversations usually go. First, these Republicans defend Romney. Then, they point out that it's hard to beat an incumbent president, sigh that the press is in the tank for Obama, and point out that the polls are a lot closer than the chattering class makes it seem (Please see Gallup: Obama’s bounce is gone). Romney might still pull it out, they say, if he can just connect with voters or tell a better story. But then the conversation inevitably turns to the “big talk” that's going to come after the election: What's the Republican Party going to look like in the future? If Romney loses, the party’s leaders must change their ways to be in sync with the modern electorate.

Caveat: If the opinions of political operatives and campaign partisans were always solid, Chris Christie would have run for president, Hillary Clinton would have traded jobs with Joe Biden, and the GOP would have had a brokered convention. So, this preliminary conversation about the fissures in the Republican Party might be just the idle chatter of people not intimately involved in the Romney game plan. But there comes a moment when these conversations break out into the open and then a campaign can’t ignore them. The locker-room chatter runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's harder for a candidate to win an election when, months ahead of time, his party's smart people are having a public discussion about the post-election period in which he has already lost.

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In addition to my reporting, there are now some public signs. David Brooks offered a withering critique of Romney in a column today that ends with what feels like a post-election analysis seven weeks before the election. "He’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not—some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign." In a piece for Politico today, the former GOP chairman Haley Barbour already sounds like he's offering post-game analysis. “In the future, and not distant future, Republicans have to come to grips with the right policy on immigration," says Barbour. Bill Kristol also appears to be in the mood to offer final words on this campaign: "Has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country?" (He is apparently not yet buying the Romney campaign’s move to specificity).

Why on earth would any self-respecting Republican rush to make definitive claims about Romney when a president with a weak record can still be turned out of office? Presumably the people making these claims care about the future of the conservative movement. There is a first-mover's advantage to getting your theory out fast so that your ideas can help shape the post-election debate. If you want your theory to become conventional wisdom, act now! But anyone who wants to stand up and make a bold claim has to engage in a balancing act: You want to be quick enough to have the stage to yourself, but not too quick so that it looks like you are being opportunistic. It’s like criticizing a sitting president too early during a foreign-policy crisis: criticizing your own party should start at the election’s edge.

You might be saying, these columnists don't speak for me. You might call them Washington conservatives and point out, as several people not stricken with Potomac Fever have said to me, that this tentative heading for the exits is symptomatic of the timidity that has caused confusion in the party. That feeling is honest and part of the debate. It’s likely to make you want to speak up to claim your view of where the conservative movement should go next before these insiders get too many free minutes at the microphone. That is how the debate gets started. Meanwhile, the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is forgotten, which isn’t good news for Gov. Romney.

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.)