Imagine you had told Republicans in December 2008 that three years from then, when Barack Obama would be running for re-election, the country would still be mired in the economic doldrums, with unemployment at 8.6 percent and job creation barely keeping up with increases in population. "Great!" they'd say. "There's no way we could lose the 2012 election!" Yet here we are, with the party about to choose between one terribly flawed, unlikeable candidate and a second terribly flawed, unlikeable candidate. No matter which one gets the nomination, you'll be hard-pressed to find a Republican who thinks they've got this election in the bag.
And today, Jeffrey Toobin wonders, given the GOP's intense dislike of Barack Obama, "Wouldn’t they seek out the broadest possible coalition for defeating him? Apparently not. Rather, the working Republican hypothesis seems to be that the damaged economy will trump any specific stand on the issues. Americans will embrace the Republican candidate simply to punish Obama for failing to cure what ails the economy. In this environment, even the Republican id will be an easy sell."
Toobin notes correctly that the Republican platform, from tax cuts for the rich to repealing "don't ask, don't tell" to voucherizing Medicare is so unpopular, you have to go back to Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 campaign to find something similar. So what the hell are they thinking?
I think there are two answers. The first is that from within your own self-enclosed information loop—and the GOP's information loop is very, very self-enclosed—the view of things like "electability" can get awfully distorted. Partisans tend to believe that the merits of their side's perspective are self-evident, and if they can just get the opportunity to explain to the wider public what they are, then everyone will be persuaded. Mitt Romney may look more electable on paper, but if they think Newt is the one who can offer the most articulate explanation of conservatism in its current form, then by definition that makes him electable. When they see polls saying that their agenda is unpopular, they just refuse to believe it.
The second answer, and perhaps the more interesting one, is that for the base of the party, beating Obama may be a secondary goal, and this is where the 1964 comparison makes the most sense. As Ed Kilgore explains, "the conservative activists who dominate the Republican presidential nominating contest are split between those who simply don’t believe adverse polls about Gingrich, and those who would rather control the GOP than the White House, if forced to choose." If this is a conflict between the establishment, which would rather nominate Romney, and the base, which would rather (at this point anyway) nominate Gingrich, then right now the establishment is losing, and they don't have too many ways of stopping Gingrich if he were to win the early contests.
But if you're a Republican true believer, a Gingrich-led loss may not be such a terrible outcome. In 1964, the establishment candidate, Nelson Rockefeller, was defeated by Goldwater, who was carried to the nomination by an army of grassroots activists that the party poobahs thought of as a bunch of extremist yahoos. Goldwater was then annihilated in the fall by Lyndon Johnson. But four years later, the Republicans got the White House back. And 12 years after that, a candidate who was nurtured by that grassroots conservative movement, and who was also tagged as an extremist (Ronald Reagan), became president. Before long, that conservative movement had pretty much taken over the party.
You could argue that the contemporary extreme wing of the GOP—call it the Tea Party if you want, but it's bigger than that—has already taken over the party, so they don't need to nominate their candidate to shove the process along. But if Newt wins the nomination, it will prove once and for all that the Republican establishment may still exist, but its power is a shadow of what it once was.