Yes, the battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum may drag on for weeks or even months. But perhaps the larger story is this: Whoever ends up as the GOP nominee, hardcore conservatives have already won in a rout.
And that means that in the general election, the GOP candidate — whoever he is — will be forced to hew to a potentially risky mix of hardline policies.
Regardless whether Romney wins, as expected, or Santorum somehow pulls off an upset, there’s really no significant difference in their platforms. Both favor tax cuts as their main economic policy. Both would try to repeal health reform and, most likely, would pay only lip service to replacing it. Both support Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as we know it. Both would call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood. Both would appoint judges who would be committed to repealing Roe v. Wade.
It’s harder to judge on foreign policy, but both seem to look towards George W. Bush’s bellicose first term as their model. As far as I can tell, any differences between them are merely a question of emphasis, not real policy disagreements. The candidates who had real differences with conservative orthodoxy on policy have either been marginalized — Ron Paul — or are long gone.
Presidential nominations are all about coordination and competition among party actors. Thousands of people — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists, members of party-aligned interest groups and the partisan press — must all find a way to converge on a candidate while imposing on that candidate firm commitments to support their public policy priorities. Sometimes major blocs of party actors have big disagreements about policy. But in this case that’s not happening. So in the end, they only need to coordinate on a candidate.
Yes, it does matter in lots of ways who winds up the nominee and how it all plays out. But this is a party that is quite united, for good or bad, around a set of very, very, conservative policy positions. Whether it’s Romney or Santorum, those are the policy positions the GOP nominee will be supporting — and will be forced to defend — this fall.