“I’d personally enjoy all the ‘we can’t nominate another Republican In Name Only’ crowd getting a stomping by an incumbent with an 8.5 unemployment rate,” said one senior party strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly, warning of nominating a strictly conservative candidate like former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
It’s happened before. In 1964, conservatives got their way when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater beat out New York Gov. — and proud moderate — Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination. Goldwater’s conservatism didn’t sit well with the country at large and Johnson won with 61 percent of the vote, the largest popular vote percentage in modern history.
Four years later, Republicans — showing their lesson learned — nominated establishment favorite and political pragmatist Richard Nixon. (Nixon had been defeated by John Kennedy in 1960 and declined to run in 1964.) Nixon ended eight years of Democratic control of the White House when he beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 election.
Conservative columnist George F. Will evoked the 1964 comparison himself when writing about Santorum and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — the GOP race’s two front-runners — in a recent column. Wrote Will: “Both are conservatives, although of strikingly different stripes. Neither, however, seems likely to be elected. Neither has demonstrated, or seems likely to develop, an aptitude for energizing a national coalition that translates into 270 electoral votes.”
Will’s advice was for conservatives to focus their energy (and, presumably, their money) on retaining control of the U.S. House and retaking control of the U.S. Senate. But such gains might not force the top-to-bottom reevaluation that many in the party believe Republicans need to undergo to win future national elections.
“Gone are the days when the Republican Party used to put forth big, bold, visionary stuff,” former Utah governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. said late last month in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” (Huntsman, who endorsed Romney after dropping from the race, has also advocated for a third party of late. “I think we’re going to have problems politically until we get some sort of third party movement or some voice out there that can put forth new ideas,” he said in that same MSNBC interview.)
The GOP’s problem, according to party insiders, is most evident when it comes to the issue of immigration. All of the major Republican presidential candidates — with the exception of former House speaker Newt Gingrich — have largely rejected the idea of a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the United States illegally.
That view has contributed to a broader sense among Hispanic voters that the Republican Party is not a friendly place for them. In the 2008 election, President Obama won the Hispanic vote nationwide with 67 percent of the vote. Given that more than half of the total growth in U.S. population over the past decade came in the Hispanic community, Republicans simply can’t afford to keep losing this largest minority group 65 percent to 35 percent and have a fighting chance of winning national elections in four or eight years’ time.
While some within the party have begun to believe that the only way for the GOP to truly heal is to first bottom out, most strategists don’t see 2012 shaping up that way — particularly if the establishment-friendly Romney winds up as the nominee.
“They won’t get it this year, as Romney is viewed as too moderate, so blame will go to moderates,” said former Virginia representative Tom Davis, himself a leading moderate voice within the GOP. “The narrative will be McCain and Mitt are too much like Obama.”
Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime consigliere and a lead strategist during the Arizona senator’s 2000 and 2008 presidential bids, agreed that no matter the results this November, it will almost certainly not trigger a 1964-like reassessment of the party.
“Losses are interpreted through the prism of people’s convictions,” said Salter. “If Republicans lose the next election badly, which would be unfortunate for a whole lot of reasons, conservatives will blame it on a nominee who wasn’t conservative enough, and the center-right and moderates will blame it on the purists.”
The question many Republican strategists are asking themselves at the moment is whether — in 2012, 2016 or even 2020 — it’s worth taking one step back in order to, hopefully, take two steps forward.