For Republicans, the 2012 election was a bitter experience. The economy was weak, Americans were dissatisfied, and still Republicans lost to President Obama, unable to raise turnout or peel enough voters from the Democratic coalition.
From the higher view of history, however, this was typical. Absent a disaster—war, recession, or preferably both—it’s hard to beat an incumbent president. In 1948, Harry Truman had the turbulent aftermath of a war, but also a blistering economy. He won. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower had steady growth and relative peace. He won with a landslide. Lyndon Johnson, running in Kennedy’s stead, won on the strength of the president’s memory and a healthy economy, and Richard Nixon’s second term was a feat of strong growth, despite the war in Vietnam. Ronald Reagan, like Eisenhower, had growth and relative peace, as did Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. George W. Bush was mired in a souring war, but the economy was just strong enough to fill the sails of his presidency. Overall, between the end of the World War II era and the present, just three men—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush—have failed to win a full eight years in the White House on their own feet as candidates. (Gerald Ford is a special case.)
What’s truly unusual in American politics is the threepeat. After two terms, voters tend to move on to the other party, either as a correction, or just to try something different. The three exceptions, in the 20th century, were the 1920s—when a presidential death and a presidential retirement gave us 12 years of Republican governance—the ’30s and ’40s—where Democrats held the White House through 20 years of depression and war—and the 1980s, when Republicans held it through the end of the Cold War and into the 1990s.
As extremely novel events, those periods changed the political landscape. The moderate, more internationalist Republican Party that emerged out of five terms of Democratic leadership and New Deal economic policy was markedly different than the conservative one that governed through the 1920s, while the Democratic Party took a right turn after losing to Reagan and George H.W. Bush in three consecutive contests.
Which brings us to the present. Writing for the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein says—with some hyperbole, but not much—that Republicans should just disband the party if they can’t beat Hillary Clinton. “All she has going for her,” says Klein, after a negative review of her campaign speech on Saturday, “is the hope that pushing the right buttons on identity politics and promising new government benefits, Americans will overlook what they don’t like.” She’s so bad, he says, that if Republicans can’t “nominate a formidable candidate to put against a Democrat with lots of baggage,” they might as well “throw in the towel.”
Clearly, Klein is exaggerating. But he nods to something that’s true: If Republicans lose in 2016—and give Democrats a rare and coveted third term—the party will have to change. Indeed, it will change, and the force will come from within the GOP, from groups and interests that would rather have power than purity. And that’s especially true if a conservative candidate like Gov. Scott Walker loses, because then, conservatives can’t lean on purity—“Mitt Romney/John McCain wasn’t conservative enough”—to explain a loss.
And a loss is a big deal. After all, what does 12 (or 16) years out of the White House mean for a political party? It means you can’t reverse key policies—like the Affordable Care Act—without a huge backlash. It means you don’t have a stamp on the federal bureaucracy—your hires have either left or retired—and you’ve lost your step on the federal judiciary. It means a less friendly Supreme Court—with consequences that stand for decades—and it means less influence on the international stage. In short, it’s a disaster.
Now, I sit on the left of American politics, and from here, it looks like Republicans have to move away from their base. Americans aren’t liberal, but they don’t want the hard conservatism of the past six years, and they aren’t for the exclusion—of immigrants, of LGBT Americans—that’s come from some of the loudest voices in the GOP coalition. But that’s a self-interested diagnosis. Just as possible is a GOP that stays in its place on government and the economy—tax cuts and a smaller welfare state—but adopts a more cosmopolitan outlook that pulls right-leaning voters from emerging groups like Latinos and Asians.
On the other end, there’s a GOP that moves left on government—but becomes more culturally conservative—or one that stays where it is in most places but tries to outflank the Democratic Party on issues outside the left-right divide, like criminal justice reform.
Whether or not you think these are plausible paths for the GOP—in one way or another, they reflect options on the table in this election cycle—is less important than the reality of the party’s position; if it loses, it will buckle to pressure for reform.
If there’s a caveat—something to keep events from “breaking the fever” of the party’s conservative movement—it’s if Republicans nominate a more moderate candidate like Jeb Bush or Gov. John Kasich. Then, as with nominees past, conservatives could ignore the loss, and keep pressing for the same old losing formula.