James Joyner (via Larison) thinks so:

If Romney wins the nomination and loses to Obama–both of which seem likely right now–then we’ll likely see a swing to the right in 2016, as it would reinforce in the nominating electorate the notion that nominating moderates is a recipe for disaster.

I think that what makes me less inclined to believe this will happen is that Romney has little of the record of publicly bucking his party that McCain did. McCain wasn’t especially moderate in 2008 compared to the rest of the field–many of the other candidates supported cap-and-trade, though most had already flip-flopped on immigration reform–but he had a record of constantly needling Bush on matters both substantive and symbolic. This made it relatively easy for Limbaugh and others of his ilk to wrap up the defeat around him and discard the entire mess as a “moderate” mistake, even though McCain polled much better than the “true conservative” candidates and made the race closer than it would otherwise had been, and only after adding a “true conservative” to his ticket did his campaign really begin to falter. The 2008 campaign was lost because Bush’s policies–foreign and domestic–were utter disasters, but it’s much easier to shoot the messenger in cases like this, and that it was  “moderate” John McCain made it irresistible. Romney simply doesn’t have any of this baggage–his 2008 campaign was less moderate than McCain’s, and he was the candidate of the establishment then as now. McCain had only some establishment support, but that support was among neoconservatives who have assumed less influence this time around. I suspect that fighting for the legacy of George W. Bush (i.e. Iraq) has become such an irrelevant consideration in 2012 that the neocons have less clout now than then, and Romney’s level of support went from being insufficient to entirely sufficient. But that’s a guess.

When discussing Romney, it’s important to take note that what plugged-in, informed people think about Romney differs wildly from what the average person thinks about him. To the former group, Romney is a shameless panderer who has no noticeable core convictions and few scruples, and is largely disliked by people on different sides. But the latter group was largely unaware of him in 2008 and has mostly become aware of him through his 2012 iteration, with all those unsavory flip-flops a half-decade behind him. Romney has presented himself as a staunch conservative with business experience, and his opposition has shown little interest in bringing up his past positions and the circumstances in which they were dropped, or even the only thing that made Romney a noteworthy figure in the first place, his Massachusetts health reform bill. Romney’s history on the national stage isn’t all that atypical for a Republican, while McCain’s had been–at least for a while. It’s true that Romney isn’t “one of them” in a cultural sense, but average conservatives don’t have much to point at to say he’s a phony ideological conservative, because Romney’s opponents and the media have been poor at getting such an obvious message out. Romney’s loss, should it occur, will probably be shrugged off in much the same way that conservatives shrugged off Bob Dole’s in 1996. Of course, if Republicans wind up losing the House and don’t capture the Senate, then he could become a vilified figure much like Mike Dukakis is among Democrats–hated for losing but not necessarily for ideological deviations and I would expect the internal conservative tensions tighten considerably as a result. And if that occurs, I hardly expect the Tea Party to have the upper hand–an improving economy, military deleveraging in the Middle East and electoral defeat like that would probably give sane Republicans quite a bit more power. Something to hope for, even if I don’t see it as especially likely in this case.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    i’ve given up hope of the republican party ever taking any defeat and using it to gradually de-loonify itself. i’ve yearned wistfully for a long period of Tory-like walks in the cold, cold wilderness for them — but the way our political system is set up just won’t allow for a decade or more when Republicans are generally on the outs. There will always be mid-term congressional elections to blow more hot air into the crazy balloon.

    i’m left with the crusty fatalism that assures me that as more and more racist, bigoted Olds die off, so too shall our general overall enlightenment bloom.

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