The conservative base has a much worse problem than the rise of the least Tea Party-ish candidate to a commanding position in the Republican presidential primary. If Mitt Romney is the nominee, his fierce nemesis will be accommodated in on fashion or another; the Romney camp is too professional and focused to hold a grudge. Moreover, while the anti-Romney forces are reluctant to admit it, he’s a more conservative candidate than in 2008 and has already adopted a good deal of their agenda (e.g. ObamaCare repeal, the balanced budget amendment).
But, I would suggest, the principled rightwing activists have a much bigger problem: Movement conservatives risk becoming the target of mockery, an irrelevant exercise that is more for laughs (at their own expense) than politically significant. Having tied themselves to Newt Gingrich they now can be painted, accurately enough, as cranks.
What can they do about it? After, all there are ideologically serious conservatives to the right of Romney. Think about Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and newcomers like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). Instead of them, the face of the rightwing is now Gingrich and the rest of the clown show.
Several measures can be taken. Most obviously, conservatives unpersuaded by Romney can flock to Rick Santorum. He’s a respectable, indeed impressive, face of staunch conservatism on social, economic and foreign policy issues. He embodies the family values the right holds dear.
In addition, conservative groups can and should make an ideological case against the worst aspects of the Newtonian show (e.g elaborate spending plans, unseriousness about debt reduction, incendiary rhetoric) and affirmatively reject the obnoxious, unfocused style of conservatism that elevates media bashing over substance. Groups like Club for Growth and Americans For Tax Reform have done some of this. Others should do some heavy lifting as well.
And finally, conservatives need to be prudent in selecting House and Senate candidates in 2012. No more picks like Christine O’Donnell and no more “we’d rather lose than build a right-center” coalition. Each flaky nominee will cement the image of the right as a cartoonish outfit.
The rightwing base has very serious people and ideas, but currently it isn’t a serious player, even in the GOP. Modern conservatism has been about ideas and temperament, and the right should return to those ideals (humility about government’s role, support for limited, but not wacky government) and habits (discipline, restraint, good cheer) that will restore its reputation.