Why the GOP Will Double Down on a Losing Strategy

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaign in Findley, Ohio, nine days before the presidential election

Some elements of the Republican agenda are standard for a center-right party: lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation. But in the Obama era, the GOP has pushed far beyond center right. In 2008 every Republican presidential candidate had an economic-stimulus plan — Romney’s was the largest — and John McCain, the nominee, had a cap-and-trade plan for energy. By 2009 the GOP was united against stimulus, cap-and-tax and a health care plan nearly identical to the one Romney crafted in Massachusetts. Polls show increasing support in the U.S. for gay rights and broad support for clean energy, but most Republicans are superglued to the other side. The party has also doubled down on its unpopular efforts to protect Wall Street from regulation, eliminate funding for Big Bird and extend tax cuts for the rich. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, authored a bold plan to end Medicare’s guarantees and shrink nondefense spending, but it was so politically toxic that the Romney campaign abandoned it, relentlessly attacking Obama for Medicare cuts that were part of Ryan’s plan as well.

The GOP’s moderate wing has been dwindling for years. Olympia Snowe’s retirement and Scott Brown’s defeat will leave Susan Collins as about the only Republican centrist in the Senate. And on Capitol Hill, even pragmatically inclined conservatives have been reluctant to compromise with Obama on anything, aware that even minor deviations could inspire the free-market Club for Growth to bankroll a Tea Party primary challenge like the ones that ended the careers of Senators Bob Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Club for Growth president Chris Chocola recalls that Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who had a reputation as an ideological squish, called him the day after Bennett lost — and has been a reliable conservative ever since to protect his right flank. “Members take notice of what we do, and that’s great,” Chocola says. “We’re not interested in helping Republicans win a majority so they can grow government a bit slower than the Democrats. We want to elect principled fiscal conservatives.”

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To party elites like lobbyist Ed Rogers, there’s a fine line between principled fiscal conservatism, which he supports, and politically suicidal dogmatism, which leads to candidates like Akin and Mourdock. “We have an angry fist-shaking caucus that says losing with purity is better than winning with nuance, which is crazy,” Rogers says. For four years, Republican politicians have portrayed Obama as a dangerous radical and fought him full time. It’s going to be hard to cut deals with him to solve problems like the looming fiscal cliff without alienating Republican voters who believed what they said. “We’re probably one e-mail away from Benghazi being an impeachable offense for much of our party,” Rogers says. “I think that’s nuts, but that’s where we are right now.”

There are already signs that the party of no intends to continue its strategy of no. Even before the election, House Speaker John Boehner warned that he’d have a mandate too and that Obama would poison the well by pursuing Democratic priorities in a second term. “Obama seems to think that we’re going to have an epiphany and do what he wants us to do. That’s not going to happen,” says Cole, who is on the dealmaking side of the GOP divide. Rogers, another political pragmatist, is just as insistent that Republicans will not let Obama have his way. “You won’t see any me-too-ism. None. Zero,” he says. “Nothing about this election will diminish the right wing.”

How Long Will It Take?
The GOP response to huge losses in 2006 and 2008 was to move even further right. Many Republicans believe that President George W. Bush’s problem was overspending and that McCain was too liberal as well. That strategy worked in 2010, and many conservatives think it could have worked again in 2012 if Romney had been a credible spokesman for their principles. Chocola points out that his predecessor at the Club for Growth, Pat Toomey, is now a blue-state Senator from Pennsylvania. “There’s a great power in a clear message,” Chocola says. “Romney always had a sincerity problem.”

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As centrists have abandoned the GOP, the power of the base has gotten even stronger inside the party, further reducing the allure of centrist policies, which has further alienated centrists. It’s a closed feedback loop, and GOP veterans do not expect Tuesday’s disappointing but not catastrophic losses to break it before the next election cycle. The party’s voters and funders are not looking for compromise, so its leaders are likely to double down on fossil-fueled, Wall Street–friendly obstructionism. Ryan, a devout supply-sider who is also more socially conservative than Romney, is likely to emerge as an even more central player in Congress and in the offstage struggle to lead the party; Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have similar ideological profiles and ambitions. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had won fans with his aggressive liberal-bashing despite some policy moderation, infuriated many in the party with his enthusiastic praise of Obama after Hurricane Sandy.

Of course, 2016 is ages from now. While there will surely be some intraparty sniping during the next few months, for now, Republicans seem likely to stick with their playbook and cater to their base. Even as that base gets older, angrier and less representative of America.

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