Republican Roulette: Romney vs. The Rebels

By Bill Freeland

Super Tuesday has come and gone but Republicans are hardly any closer to selecting a nominee.

Mitt Romney pulled out wins in three more states where he competed with his current rival Rick Santorum, but in the contest that mattered most, Ohio, his margin was disappointingly thin despite out-spending him 12 to 1.

What’s more, much of that outcome would likely have been reversed had the religious vote not been split between Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

This dynamic means the race will continue for weeks more, but with the focus now shifting to some southern states where Santorum holds an advantage with Christian evangelicals. The result: no one will likely claim victory for weeks to come.

But as the bitterness of the contest has revealed, the struggle within the party extends beyond this year’s election. The nominating process has devolved into a rancorous sibling rivalry between an entitled dstablishment and a diverse rebel insurgency. At stake: not just the choice of a nominee but a broader ideological fight between these two camps with the future of the Republican brand hanging in the balance.

In the choice between these two political paradigms, the focus is predictably on who wins. Yet there is a counterintuitive case to be made, depending on what happens later in the general election.

This could be the year that the losers in the GOP primary process ultimately have as lasting an influence as the winners on its future as they plot their return.

Say, for example, the party elites get their way — and their man — and Romney is nominated and goes on to win the general election. The “regulars” will be proven right, and the insurgents will return to irrelevance as the establishment types get to keep their preferred seating at the 2016 convention.

But what if Romney loses to Obama? The elites, bitterly opposed by the rebels, will finally be disgraced and the insurgents vindicated. It will be 1976 all over again, when the party mainstream mistakenly stuck with Ford over Reagan — and lost to Carter. They corrected that mistake four years later, signing on with the Gipper and his purer vision of movement conservatism. Next time today’s agitators will likely look early on to reincarnate a symbolic Reagan and move still further to the right to win in 2016.

Compare that to a victory in Tampa by the Anybody But Romney wing of the GOP. Should its nominee win the election in the fall, the party rebels will rightly claim a stunning victory and what’s left of the Republican establishment will be further diminished.

But what if the rebel candidate wins at the convention but loses to Obama? In that case, welcome to 1964. That year Goldwater proclaimed extremism was no vice — but learned to his regret that moderation in pursuit of the presidency was a virtue — as he lost to LBJ in a landslide.

What his party learned was the virtue of moderation — and succeeded with Nixon four years later. A loss in 2012 will likely mean the party next time will avoid the mistakes of 1964 and seek a win with a similarly moderate candidate in 2016.

Now what about the Democrats? A parallel scenario could also emerge.

Recent polls, reflecting both better economic trends and perhaps a contrast with the bitter GOP primary battles, give the incumbent Obama a slight advantage over his challengers. But worsening job numbers and gas prices could still put the outcome in doubt.

If he wins reelection, his overriding bipartisan stance in the face of Republican obstruction (which has driven many Democrats to distraction) would be convincingly vindicated.

Should he lose, however, the signature policy of his administration would likely be repudiated resulting in a more assertive nominee next time. The likely outcome: a more aggressive party and an even more polarized political process.

The lesson in all this: hopes for the future are often haunted by the failures of the past–and sometimes even defined by them. Thus it can be argued that instead of imagining the future, we sometimes settle merely for avoiding the mistakes of the past.

If that is the lesson the losers of 2012 take as a guide for the future, then their party and our nation will be the poorer for it.

[In the Sixties, Bill Freeland was a contributor to The Rag in Austin and Liberation News Service in New York. Read more articles by Bill Freeland on The Rag Blog.]

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