Mitt Romney’s clear win in the first debate shifted the momentum in the race and arrested the talk of his campaign’s incompetence. But the most interesting aspect of his performance—completely unexpected by observers, pretty obviously including the president—was the way Romney appeared to position himself as a moderate, contradicting the main positions he’d taken for the previous sixteen or so months of campaigning.
This abrupt shift on his part emphasized, to me, the central fact of this election: that the Republican Party is—has made itself into—a party that is (in all likelihood) too far to the right to win national elections. Romney demonstrated at the debate that he understands this, and that the only way for him to avoid the drubbing he saw coming is by running away from the party and denying its agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, decimation of the domestic budget, and global belligerence. The big question of the campaign’s final weeks is whether he can continue to pull this off.
During Romney’s September swoon, when he lost ground to the president in key states owing to a series of large and small errors, blame was laid on his campaign. But as I’ve argued in The Daily Beast and elsewhere, the core problem hasn’t been his team, or his oft-noted lack of charisma. It’s the Republican Party’s radicalism and the endless gauntlet of litmus tests its factions have forced Romney to pass. Consider: Romney’s biggest blunder in September was revealed by David Corn of Mother Jones, in the form of the now famous video, that Romney believes 47 percent of Americans to be in essence freeloaders. If he does lose this race, that event will have been decisive.
This was commonly called a Romney error or miscalculation. But in fact it was just the opposite. Romney’s remarks were carefully calibrated to reassure two key conservative factions that he shares their view of the world and would enforce it as president. To the rich donors to whom he was speaking in Boca Raton, he clearly felt he had to pick up and develop the theme about the people who pay no income taxes, an argument that sprang to life on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page in 2002 and has subsequently taken hold as a right-wing article of faith via Fox News, talk radio, and the many we-hate-liberals books that roll off the conservative presses. Every step of the way, Romney had made a show of placating these factions.
As a result of this insistent fanati-cism, Republicans—the right-wing base and the tremulous politicians who live in fear of it—have minimized their own chances in a number of states, representing a large chunk of electoral votes, where the party was once dominant at the presidential level but where it’s now struggling to scratch out narrow wins. Notable among these are Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado (now totaling forty electoral votes). They tightened up after the first debate—Ohio less so than the other two—but the fact remains that they are states the GOP once won with little effort. Going farther back, to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush’s time, Republicans were winning states where the idea of them investing even a dime today seems laughable: New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, and the biggest prize of all, California.
This didn’t just happen. While these states were moving to the left demographically—with more nonwhite voters and more white, progressive-minded, information-age professionals—the GOP was pushing farther and farther to the right, antagonizing and alarming both groups. The electoral effect is that today, the built-in Democratic advantage in the electoral college among states that aren’t contested is thirty votes. That is, virtually any Democratic nominee is assured of 221 electoral votes, while a generic Republican is assured of just 191.
My tally of 221 excludes Michigan and Wisconsin, a combined twenty-six electoral votes, simply because the Republicans are trying to contest those states this year. But they’ve both gone Democratic for many elections now (Michigan since 1992, Wisconsin since 1988). Some polls showed that the race became closer in these states after the first debate, but nearly all experts continued to rate them as at least “leaning Obama.” In sum, then, the Democrats are quadrennial favorites in states totaling 247—just twenty-three short of the needed 270.
What Romney managed at the first debate was that he at once distanced himself from GOP extremism and won the extremists’ approval while doing so, because what mattered to them was that he pummeled Obama so thoroughly. The right-wing base, which has demanded purity up to this point, will now probably let him say whatever he needs to say to win. The Democrats’ job is to remind voters of the pre- debate Romney.
Of course politics doesn’t end with an election result. Indeed, that’s when it all begins again. If Obama wins, we will see a battle within the Republican Party the likes of which we’ve not witnessed in modern history. Many will note that Romney’s eleventh-hour attempt at moderation failed. Did we lose, they will ask, because Romney was a squish—someone who never truly was a conservative, never really believed; or have we perhaps gone off the deep end?
Most of them will decide that it’s the former. William Kristol pined in mid-September for “the Ryan-Rubio ticket we deserve,” referring to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and most conservatives will take the view that the defeat was Romney’s, not the party’s, because he wasn’t a real conservative. But there will be a few who will, however quietly and sheepishly, push the alternative view. Jeb Bush, who undoubtedly knows the electoral math I laid out above and who is surely hoping that his last name does not by 2016 carry the baggage it does now, will probably become the de facto leader of this tendency. He said on Meet the Press the Sunday before the Republican convention was gaveled to order: “This is going to be a close election, but long-term, conservative principles, if they’re to be successful and implemented, there has to be a concerted effort to reach out to a much broader audience than we do today.”
With the next presidential election four years away, the forum in which all this will be immediately contested—and closely watched—is Congress, in its relations with Obama. Assume, as polls now suggest, that the Republicans will retain control of the House and add seats in the Senate, though not enough to capture the majority. Will they be willing to cut a deal with Obama in advance of the January 1 deadline for the expiration of the Bush tax rates and the beginning of the harsh cuts to all domestic and defense programs? That is, will they agree to a tax increase on the upper brackets in order to consummate a “grand bargain” on spending, taxes, and the deficit?
Whatever the Republicans in Congress decide to do, the intraparty war will continue. We can already project forward to the likely roster of GOP candidates who will strive for the party’s nomination next time if Romney loses: Paul Ryan, Bush, Rubio, and Chris Christie in the top tier; Sarah Palin leading an unlikely second echelon that might also include Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Senator and Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, grabbing the reins from his father, and others. Six of those eight are hard right. The GOP will probably need to experience one more drubbing—at the hands, possibly, of no less an enemy than Hillary Clinton—to get the message.
And if Romney wins, which Romney will govern? It seems reasonable to assume it will be the one who campaigned for sixteen months and not just for one.