GOP Coalition-Building Off the Table

At TNR John Judis accurately describes Mitt Romney’s 2012 general election strategy as a big departure from the Bush-Rove effort to appeal to potentially disaffected Democratic groups in the electorate, which means even if Mitt wins he’s helping bury his party’s prospects in the immediate future:

George W. Bush and Karl Rove always understood the importance of the Hispanic vote to the Republican future. That accounted for Bush’s support for immigration reform; his repudiation in the summer of 2000 of Republican congressional attempts to eviscerate social spending (you can’t attract the Latino vote by promising to dismantle the welfare state); and by the elevation of half-Latino George P. Bush at the convention and during the campaign. Bush got about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and above 40 percent in 2004, although the exact numbers are in dispute.

The second element of a Republican strategy would consist of cutting into the Democratic advantage among women and professionals. Bush and Rove were also into that. In 2000, Bush ran on a slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” he kept the religious right at bay during the conventions (and in 2000, believe it or not, said he would not impose a litmus test on the appointment of Supreme Court justices) and he tried to convey through the prominence of Colin Powell at the 2000 convention a politics of tolerance and inclusion. Bush did not create a lasting majority—the Iraq war, the Great Recession, and his unwillingness or inability, once in office, to defy the radicals in his own party doomed the Republicans in 2008—but his political efforts in 2000 and 2004 at least showed an understanding of what Republicans had to do to create a majority.

Judis attributes the repudiation of the Bush-Rove strategy to Romney’s clumsy efforts to serially pander to conservative pressure groups in the GOP. I think that’s unfair. If you look at the whole indictment of W.’s administration as having “betrayed conservative principles–an indictment that virtually the entire GOP embraced after 2008 as a way of distancing itself from Bush’s profound unpopularity–the “betrayals” are precisely those Rovian policies designed to reach beyond the GOP base: No Child Left Behind, immigration reform, the Medicare Rx Drug benefit, and (with the exception of the failed Social Security initiative of 2005) a relatively lax attitude towards existing federal social programs.

No candidate was going to be nominated in 2012 who did not repudiate these “betrayals,” even, and perhaps especially, the candidates (notably Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich) who voted for or supported them. It’s already been half-forgotten that Santorum’s narrow defeat by Romney was not attributable to the Pennsylvanian’s “extremism,” but to the incessant attacks on him by Romney and his Super-PAC for being a “Washington insider” who supported Bush’s heresies. So the self-destructive path of closing off avenues for expanding the party base wasn’t a “mistake” by Romney, but in fact the only way he could have possibly won the nomination.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.