Sometimes, you really don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
The best way to measure the prevailing breeze inside the Republican Party is to track the direction of the argument in the current presidential race. Almost every attack from one candidate against another has come from the right; almost always, the underlying message has been that Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, or fill-in-the-blank is not a trustworthy conservative. The race has resembled a shoot-out in which every gun is pointed in the same direction.
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The intensity, and frequency, of that barrage reflects more than the usual centrifugal force of primary elections. It also underscores the extent to which this Republican primary has inverted the usual relationship between candidate and electorate: Many GOP voters are not so much looking for a leader to set a direction for the party as auditioning a nominee they believe they can trust to implement the consensus that the party has already agreed on.
That unusual dynamic helps explain the race’s volatility. The GOP faces a mismatch between script and cast. Since Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, conservatives have decisively won the argument about the GOP’s direction, almost without a fight. But the party hasn’t produced a 2012 contender who both embodies that new consensus and impresses voters as a truly viable nominee, much less a plausible president. In four (or eight) years, the party likely will be able to select from choices such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who check both boxes. But for now, this mismatch has produced unstinting turmoil, especially among conservatives, that could grease the nomination of Romney, the candidate whom many on the right trust the least.
One of the race’s most striking characteristics has been the absence of a real debate over the party’s course: The question hasn’t been where to go, only how far and how fast. The lack of such a debate has been especially noteworthy because nomination fights that follow losses, like the GOP’s failure against Obama in 2008, often inspire the most serious internal debates.
The most important modern contest over the Democratic Party’s direction, for instance, came after its unanticipated loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988. Only the sting of that defeat allowed Bill Clinton, four years later, to overcome liberal opposition to his insistence that Democrats had to retool to reclaim the center.
Since World War II, Republicans have regularly engaged in heated internal arguments after presidential defeats. As historian Michael Bowen noted in his surprisingly timely book The Roots of Modern Conservatism, Thomas Dewey’s stunning loss to Harry Truman in 1948 ignited a full-scale debate over the GOP’s direction. In 1949, an early forerunner of the tea party called the National Republican Roundup Committee emerged to denounce Dewey’s efforts to moderate the GOP and demand a greater assault on the New Deal. But Dewey forcefully defended his approach and then helped engineer the 1952 nomination of Dwight Eisenhower over conservative champion Robert Taft.
Later, the GOP’s 1960 loss precipitated the epic 1964 primary collision between Republican moderates, who rallied around Nelson Rockefeller, and conservatives, who powered Barry Goldwater’s nomination victory. Gerald Ford’s 1976 defeat framed a similar, though less stark, confrontation between Ronald Reagan, as the conservative champion, and the elder Bush, as a more moderate, or at least traditional, alternative. After Clinton’s 1996 reelection, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Steve Forbes offered the party distinctive directions that GOP voters ultimately resolved in the 2000 primaries by embracing the repositioning that Bush termed “compassionate conservatism.”
Nothing like that happened after Obama beat McCain in 2008. Instead, Republicans from the grassroots to Capitol Hill unified behind the conviction that McCain lost because he (and Bush, in this argument) was not conservative enough. A dominant view quickly emerged that Republicans could recover power only by doubling down on an anti-Washington message.
The force of that consensus drove the unyielding, and virtually indivisible, congressional Republican opposition to Obama’s agenda. In an action-reaction cycle, the ambition of Obama’s efforts to expand government’s role further solidified the Republican determination to retrench it. The consensus was hardened again by the tea party’s emergence and then the results of the 2010 elections, when the combination of Obama’s overreach and voter dismay over the sluggish economy propelled the GOP to historic midterm gains.
Now, the GOP’s new consensus is vividly apparent in the agendas of the 2012 contenders, who propose to roll back government more militantly than any Republican nominee in decades. The overriding issue among the major competitors is who is most dedicated to that cause. None of them has questioned whether the reigning interpretation of 2008 is correct—and whether the party can win the general election behind the ideologically aggressive blueprint all are offering. Congressional Republicans’ plummeting poll numbers should offer some reason for caution, but none of the GOP rivals is reaching for that straw in the wind as the voting begins.