2012 In Review: The Year of Conservative Absolutism

Between now and New Year’s Day, I will occasionally post thoughts about the big political phenomena of 2012. The biggest was the decision made the Republican Party’s rank-and-file and leadership to embrace an unusually inflexible and combative conservative ideology as it sought to topple an incumbent Democratic president and regain control of the Senate. In my opinion, this counter-intuitive approach had more to do with the ultimate results than any other single factor, including the Obama campaign’s great strengths and Mitt Romney’s personal weaknesses, and the thousands of daily events on the campaign trail we all talked about. The only thing that perhaps rivaled the unforced error of the GOP’s basic messaging was the steady if unspectacular improvement in the objective condition of the country–from the economy to national security to the first positive benefits of Obamacare–which made it easier for Democrats to make the election a clear choice of future policy paths.

It didn’t have to be that way. In Mitt Romney the GOP had a presidential nominee who would have been perfectly happy to campaign as a different version of himself, among the many versions he has presented over the years. Republicans did not have to choose a list of Senate candidates so bad–many either open extremists or former “establishment” GOPers afraid to risk conservative criticism–that they managed to lose seats in a cycle when big gains should have been relatively easy. The party’s dreadful performance among younger and minority voters was largely self-inflicted. Nobody made them raise reproductive rights as an issue, particularly in a year when their own pundits and candidates constantly insisted–as though mumbling to themselves–that “social issues” were off the table.

Yet there they were, as prospects for winning the White House and the Senate slipped away, stuck not only with absolutist positions on abortion and LGBT rights that have become increasingly universal in recent years, but with equally absolutist and unpopular positions on tax rates for the wealthy, economic stimulus, health care, climate change, and “entitlement reform.” By the time Romney tried to pose as a “moderate” in the autumn, praying for media complicity in presenting yet another dishonest self-portrait, it was too late.

Yes, demographic trends played a big role in the outcome, but given economic conditions and what might have been a serious falloff in turnout for Obama’s 2008 coalition, a less ideologically rigid GOP would have had a decent chance to prevail.

This is all worth reiterating because there are scarce signs of any Republican reconsideration of basic ideological positioning following the election. Sure, they’ll move partway back to the George W. Bush positioning on immigration–though not without savage internal dissension–and will probably shut up about marriage equality in most parts of the country. Institutions associated with the Tea Party Movement, and some of its leaders, may decline in popularity–not that it much matters insofar as that movement’s point of view has now been largely internalized by the “Republican Establishment,” as Steve Kornacki notes at Salon today. But even as the image of an extremist party continues to sink in, and even as demographic trends make a party of old white people even less attractive to the entire electorate, the prospect of “better” candidates and shrunken midterm turnout patterns will almost certainly prevent any real internal change.

So those of us who thought Barack Obama deserved a second term, and who were horrified by what a Republican White House and Congress might have done–by now we’d be looking right down the barrel of the Ryan Budget being rammed through Congress via reconciliation–owe a lot to the many ideological enforcers of the GOP who made even modest accommodations to political necessity so difficult. And despite the frustrating inability or unwillingness of some in the Beltway media to grasp the basics of asymmetrical polarization, the conservative movement’s constant aggressions convinced enough self-conscious “centrists”–from Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein to yours truly–that something unsavory was going on in the Elephant Party which had to be repudiated. This enabled Obama and his highly competent campaign to lead a united coalition through thick and thin, and–who knows?–may now help him govern despite all the obstacles he now faces.

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.