DES MOINES — As Republicans begin choosing a general-election candidate here Tuesday night, one question could shape the destiny of the eventual winner: Will the nominee define the party, or will the party define the nominee?
Successful presidential nominees often have helped redefine their parties. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism changed the Republican Party when he became its nominee in 1980. Bill Clinton portrayed himself as a New Democrat, which proved a key to his victory in 1992. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush used the term “compassionate conservative” to put distance between himself and the congressional wing of his party that had been defined by Newt Gingrich.
In this campaign, the opposite seems to be the case. “This year, it seems to me, the party is the sun and the candidates are the planets. . . . They are trying to prove to primary voters that they are reliable and trustworthy when it comes to the basic platform of the GOP,” said Pete Wehner, a Republican strategist and former Bush administration adviser.
Republicans have a real opportunity to unseat the president in November, given the state of the economy and public dissatisfaction with some of his policies. President Obama’s standing is as fragile as that of any incumbent seeking reelection in two decades.
But Republicans could see their opening slip away if the nominee is bound too tightly to an unpopular congressional wing of the party that has become the face of the GOP over the past 12 months. The Economist magazine recently summed up the Republican dilemma, saying that at a time when many independent voters may be looking for a solid center-right platform, the Republican Party “is saddling its candidate with a set of ideas that are cranky, extreme and backward-looking.”
One reason the candidates have been reluctant to chart new philosophical ground is that Republicans are as ideologically united as they’ve been in many years. They are also more conservative than they were even in Reagan’s day, thanks to an infusion of energy and ideas from the tea party movement.
That has put a strong gravitational pull on the presidential candidates. None of them, with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), have shown any inclination to break with party orthodoxy or to put distance between themselves and their congressional colleagues.
Democrats see the Republican candidates as compliant to the tea party wing of the GOP.
“This is a party that is very much defined by the tea party element, and the candidates have submitted to that,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “That’s their destiny, and they’re going to have to live with it.”
A Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the election, agreed.
“What Obama needs to do now is force the Republican nominee into supporting the tea party wing of the party over the next nine months,” he said. “Can you tie the nominee to the congressional Republicans? If he can do that, now you’re talking about a real problem.”
If Republicans’ choice is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Democrats believe that the nomination fight will have left him deeply compromised. Advisers to the president assert that in trying to win the nomination, Romney has taken positions that will cost him votes in November — positions on, among other things, immigration, the “personhood” movement and the Medicare reform proposal in the first budget plan from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Romney has worked assiduously to court tea party voters on economic and fiscal issues, but he is not widely viewed as having taken up their ideological flag. William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, said Romney’s appeal is different than that of rivals such as former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who has been rising in Iowa, or former House speaker Gingrich (Ga.), both of whom invoke Reaganism more directly.
Romney’s message, he said, is not an ideological vision for the party but rather a presentation of himself as an intelligent, practical-minded, conservative businessman.
“For better or worse,” Galston said, “Romney is running as Mr. Fix-It, and his diagnosis is that the United States right now is a huge fixer-upper in need of his services. . . . Romney is running his campaign the way he would run the country.”
Some strategists see that as a potential problem. Mark McKinnon, a media adviser to Bush in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, said: “My concern about Mitt Romney is that rather than shaping politics, he is shaped by politics. I think he is smart, decent, honest and capable. But the times demand — and the voters are looking for — bold, dramatic and visionary leadership.”
However, if Democrats believe that they can wrap the congressional wing around Romney, Galston argues that such a strategy may not be as effective they hope.
“I think obviously people will try to trap Romney, not only in a debate against one of his many former selves, but also in a debate with some of the excesses of the Republican Congress,” he said. “It will be a test of Romney’s political skill to be able to draw the distinction, but I don’t see it as mission impossible.”
Republican strategists also make a distinction between party and philosophy. Conservatism, they argue, is popular among the broader electorate. It’s the Republican Party’s brand that may be in trouble, a condition that could shape the way the GOP nominee presents himself or herself in the general election.
Romney has already tipped his hand on this with a message that keeps all the focus on the president, arguing that Obama had a chance to fix the economy and failed. If the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, that could be enough. If someone other than Romney wins the nomination, he or she is likely to try the same thing.
The question of whether presidents truly redefine their parties is debatable. Reagan clearly did, but it happened after a battle between 1976 and 1980 that resulted in his nomination, followed by eight years in the White House that imbedded his philosophy in the GOP.
Clinton offered a redefinition of the Democratic Party in 1992, but even some Democrats — Galston among them — say he had less success in converting the party’s base to the centrist ideas of his New Democrat philosophy.
The lift to Obama’s candidacy came from his soaring rhetoric about hope and change, rather than a redefinition of what it meant to be a Democrat. He was more about changing the country than the party.
The Republican candidates are dealing with a makeover of their party that has taken place since Bush left office nearly three years ago. Bush’s domestic record triggered a conservative revolt that, along with the backlash against Obama’s health-care law and deficit spending, created the tea party movement that now defines the GOP.
So far, that has done more to shape the presidential candidates than they have done to shape their party.