Reality Bites: The GOP After Daniels, and After 2012

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The most important political story of the Obama era has been the Republican Party’s growing defiance of reality—its denial of climate science, its denunciations of Medicare cuts while proposing Medicare cuts, its denunciations of debt while proposing debt-exploding tax cuts, its resistance to financial regulation in the wake of a financial meltdown, and so on. Now the GOP’s most promising reality-based presidential candidate, Mitch Daniels, has passed up the race.

Obviously, this has big implications for 2012. Michael Scherer thinks it means Mitt Romney is a practically inevitable nominee. I’m not so sure. But I am sure that reality’s fate in the primary will have big implications beyond 2012.

There are still at least two reality-based Republicans in the race: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has the inconvenient distinction of serving as Obama’s ambassador to China, and former Massachusetts governor Romney, who has the even less convenient distinction of authoring the blueprint for Obama’s health care reforms. Romney is desperately trying to deny that he’s ever encountered reality in the past, and Huntsman, who actually seems to value his dignity, will face similar pressures to renounce reality if he really wants to win in 2012. But whether or not they care to admit it, they’re both serious center-right politicians.

If Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the GOP will quickly shift from “loosely tethered to reality” to “out of its freaking mind.” Remember, after its crushing defeat in 2008, the party faithful concluded that John McCain lost the election because he wasn’t conservative enough—and that George W. Bush lost his popularity because of his big spending. So the party moved even farther toward its right-wing base, casting away moderates like Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and Michael Bloomberg. And its comeback victory in 2010 seemed to validate that strategy. A Huntsman or Romney defeat would just prove to the party that electoral salvation lies in ideological purity and rigid obstructionism, the kind of conclusion that already appeals to Tea Party activists who consider Obama some kind of tyrannical socialist usurper.

Let’s just say there wouldn’t be much bipartisan cooperation for the next four years. And a premature quasi-obit for the GOP would look a bit less premature.

On the other hand, if Huntsman or Romney wins the nomination and then beats Obama, the Republican Party might rediscover big-tent reality-based policies. (It’s also possible that Huntsman or especially Romney would cut reality loose.) Similarly, if a Tea Party true believer like Sarah Palin or even former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum wins the nomination, and then Obama wins the election, the Republican Party might have a Goldwater moment where it starts to reconsider its small-tent extremism. (It’s also possible—maybe likely—that it would devise some excuse why Palin or Santorum had sold out conservatism.) And if a reality-denying extremist actually beats Obama, well, then we’re in trouble, because reality-denial isn’t going to fix the double-dip recession we must have had to make a reality-denier electable.

There is one other possibility, and that’s Tim Pawlenty. He seems like he might have been reality-based when he was governor of Minnesota, but he’s doing an effective job of denying reality as he pursues the nomination. In other words, he’s the kind of candidate who could help the GOP gloss over its internal contradictions, uniting Tea Party bomb-throwers who want a holy war against government and establishment types who want a plausible Chamber of Commerce nominee. And his bland demeanor could help make the election all about Obama, so that Republicans wouldn’t have to decide what they think about reality until 2013.

Maybe he’s the Fred Thompson of 2012—logical on paper but a dud on the trail.  And as Scherer says, it’s definitely Romney’s turn.  But I’m not so sure Romney will get his turn. He’s not so plausible when he pretends to be delusional.