It's not too early to start speculating about what a Mitt Romney loss in November will do to the Republican party, a charge the New Yorker's George Packer takes up. Will they move to the center or to the right? The simple answer is, of course they'll move to the right. That's what they do. But in this case, the simple answer is probably the right one. Packer points to 1972, when the Democrats nominated the most liberal guy they could find, George McGovern, and were pushed by this loss to move to the center. If the Republicans were to nominate the guy they now perceive as the real conservative (Newt Gingrich) and lose big, then something similar might happen. But since they're actually going to nominate the guy they think of as a moderate, they'll naturally conclude that less moderation is what they need. As Ezra Klein says: "You can write the post-mortem now: 'Of course America wasn't going to vote for a liberal Republican from Massachusetts who had passed the country's first individual mandate, been on both sides of Roe, and was a leveraged buyout specialist in an age of job insecurity. Next time, we absolutely have to nominate a real conservative! Next time, we''ll give Americans a real choice.'"
But I'd argue that 1972 isn't the really instructive election. Jimmy Carter was a moderate, but he didn't win the nomination in 1976 because the party was searching for a move to the center. His outsider, squeaky-clean image, along with an extremely smart primary campaign, got him the nomination in the wake of Watergate. And after he lost in 1980, the next two Democratic nominees -- Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis -- were essentially old-style liberals.
No, the real example to look at is 1992 -- in other words, whether in 2016, the GOP can make the same move to the center that the Democrats did that year. But in order for that to happen, a party needs more than a collective decision that such a move might be a good idea. They need the individuals and institutions that can force such a move.
And in this case, individuals -- or more specifically, one individual -- is the most important factor. It's true that in the early 1990s there were a group of institutions like the Democratic Leadership Council that worked to move the party to the center, and provided some intellectual ballast and personnel to help carry out the project. But it all wouldn't have happened had it not been for one particularly talented guy named Bill Clinton, a once-in-a-generation politician who ran at just the right time. In fact, Clinton could have won the presidency pretty much whenever he ran. If he had been hit by lightning in 1992, it isn't as though the other candidates that year -- Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin -- would have moved the party in the same way (and who knows, maybe if Clinton hadn't been in the race Mario Cuomo would have gotten off his duff).
The point is that we can talk all we want about where the GOP might or might not move, but there has to be an individual presidential candidate who will be the standard-bearer for the ideology that prevails. And who, pray tell, is the moderate Republican who is such a blazing talent that s/he will pull the party to the center? Keep in mind that this person would have a particularly hard job, since it would be necessary to overcome to reverse a couple of decades of movement in which his or her natural supporters -- Republican moderates -- have all either left or been purged. So who is that going to be?
Barring an inexplicable outbreak of Hunstmania, it's hard to imagine a moderate Republican taking the party by storm. I suppose it's possible that a candidate who is conservative enough to be nominated but not a passionate culture warrior, like Mitch Daniels, could unexpectedly engineer a move to the center as the 2016 nominee. But he'd be fighting his entire party to do it, and he's no Bill Clinton. So unless some extraordinary candidate we haven't even thought of emerges between now and then, I wouldn't bet on it happening.