Political writer Matt Bai wrote "Is There Life After Mitt?" for the upcoming issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Besides cheap cracks at Michele Bachman and (again) calling conservatives anti-modern "extremists," there's a definite "Death of Conservatism" vibe to Bai's analysis. Times editor Sam Tanenhaus's 2009 book of that name was forcefully rebutted by the Tea Party movement that same year. How will Bai's analysis fare come the November elections?
....The main question facing the party, should Romney lose, will be this: Was the fateful flaw the candidate’s inability to articulate that alternative, or was it the alternative itself?
Recent history would suggest that a second straight presidential defeat would prompt a serious rethinking of the Republican agenda, especially because the party would have lost four of the last six presidential elections (and the margins of victory in both winning elections were narrower than Michele Bachmann’s mind). Democrats were in a similar position after 1988, when Bill Clinton and other centrists fought to modernize the party’s fossilized message. A decade later, after Clinton’s successive victories, George W. Bush sought to recast Republicans under the banner of “compassionate conservatism,” staking out more salable positions on education and immigration.
You could certainly make the case that conservative doctrine in 2012 is courting obsolescence. The party’s core solutions to all manner of economic problems -- the lowering of marginal tax rates and the loosening of regulations -- had a lot more resonance in Ronald Reagan’s day, when the highest tax rate stood at 70 percent (it’s now half that) and before the unfettered banking system nearly took down the American economy. And while Paul Ryan may be right that most Americans are open to the conservative critique of costly entitlement programs, they don’t appear to trust conservatives to fix the problem. This is why Romney’s “47 percent” comment proved so devastating -- not because he blithely dismissed the votes of nearly half the electorate but because he reinforced the image of a party whose real agenda was to dismantle the federal safety net and then go home.
Bai's piece appears to have been written before Romney's successful debate performance last week; not many voters would categorize today's Romney as a "timid, error-prone candidate."
And yet, while the likes of Frum and Weaver await the Grand Debate, there are good reasons to believe they’ll be waiting awhile, even if their candidate is beat. In that case, conservatives would have no problem convincing themselves that the blame lies entirely with Romney, who has mostly proved himself to be every bit the timid, error-prone candidate many feared he would be -- and nothing like the model of management efficiency they hoped for. Political partisans will go to extraordinary lengths to blame the messenger rather than question the orthodoxies of their message. In this case, they would barely have to exert themselves.
What’s likely to happen instead, if it comes to that, is that the attention will instantly shift toward the new generation of potential messengers: Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal. And there will immediately be, as there was on Romney, enormous pressure to soothe and placate the activist base before making a bid to redefine conservatism for the broad center of the electorate. Already Rush Limbaugh has hinted darkly at the creation of a reactionary third party should Romney lose (as if somehow his losing could be laid on the centrists whose advice Romney has almost uniformly ignored).
Those aspirants for 2016 may well have better political instincts than Romney, but the trap that awaits them is the same. Romney spent the last few years trying to ingratiate himself to primary voters, the idea being, presumably, that he would have six months to chart his own, more moderate path after he claimed the nomination. He hasn’t. Nor does he seem to have given any deep thought to what a more pragmatic and inclusive agenda might actually entail. But that may have less to do with Romney’s erratic campaign than with the unreconcilable dilemma facing anyone who wants to lead Republicans after November. You can channel the extremists, or you can lead your party toward modernity, but you really can’t do both.