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Reports of the Death of Conservative Consensus Are Greatly Exaggerated

One of the more interesting questions to come out of the visibly pronounced chasm between the Republican Party’s moderate/establishment and more conservative/Tea Party wings is what happens if the Republican candidate for president loses to President Obama in November? I waded into the discussion a bit a couple months ago, when there seemed to be a distinct possibility that Newt Gingrich would solidify his place as the “not Romney” of the election and make it a two-man race between himself and the former Massachusetts governor.

Today, Ben Domenech proposes an updated version of the question over at Ricochet. If conservatives would be blamed for a Gingrich or Rick Santorum loss (social conservatives especially, in the case of the latter) and moderates for a theoretical Romney loss, Domenech asks, with which candidate would conservatives rather lose? I don’t have an answer to this particular question, but rather an observation about it: This is almost entirely a function of the specific candidates competing for the nomination this year, and not particularly representative of each wing more generally.

What I mean is that, particularly in the case of Romney versus Gingrich, the Republican Party’s “representatives” of each side of the conservative divide are uniquely unpalatable to the other. Romney is well liked by the establishment and by moderates, but he is vehemently disliked by the base. The reverse is true for Gingrich, who has won a serious following among the conservative movement’s grassroots (even seemingly winning over skeptical Tea Partiers), but has earned an unusual amount of fear and loathing from elected Republicans.

Think of this another way. Who are the party’s other moderate/establishment candidates who didn’t run this time around? Wouldn’t Jeb Bush be in this category, since he has taken a highly critical approach to the Tea Party’s rhetoric and Southwest Republicans’ immigration reforms, accusing them of “preying on people’s emotions”? What about Chris Christie, who favors gun control and declined to join the challenge to Obamacare?

Of course, Bush and Christie are wildly popular across all segments of the Republican Party. Both of them have been asked—in Christie’s case, begged repeatedly—to run for president this year, and there has even been speculation that Bush could emerge as a compromise candidate in a brokered convention.

On the conservative side, Paul Ryan was encouraged to run, as was Marco Rubio. Does the “establishment” have a bad word to say about either of them? Not that I’ve heard. (Though Gingrich picked a somewhat nasty fight with Ryan over his reform proposals.) Many even expect Rubio to be asked to join the ticket of the eventual GOP nominee. Tim Pawlenty supports Romney, but doesn’t he have a conservative record? Bobby Jindal supported Rick Perry, but isn’t Jindal beloved by the establishment as well?

Which side would Mitch Daniels fit on, since he announced he would not promote social conservatism if he ran, but then turned around and defunded Planned Parenthood in Indiana? Who would like to claim John Thune?

The point is that the conservative movement is generally more united on preferred candidates than this election would indicate. The candidates actually running this year are often thought of as “weak” in part because they are far from consensus picks. This might have been true in 2008 as well, but I doubt it portends the solidification of this as the party’s new norm. My guess is the last two cycles are aberrations, and that the next few cycles will disappoint the media outlets that just love writing “conservative crack-up” and “conservative civil war” stories.



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