If you knew nothing about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the picture you saw last Thursday of liberals celebrating and conservatives lamenting the end of American liberty would have convinced you that a monumental shift to the left had just taken place. Was the military budget cut by two-thirds or higher education made free for all Americans, you might have asked? At the very least, a universal, public health-insurance program must have been established. But no, the greatest ideological battle in decades was fought over a law that solidifies the position of private health-insurance companies.
That isn't to ignore that those companies will be subject to greater regulation, outlawing their cruelest abuses of their customers, and millions will be added to the insurance program for the poor. The ACA is a very, very good thing, but after its full implementation we will still have the least socialized health-care system of any advanced country in the world. Yet to hear the ACA's opponents tell it, the law will twist America into a socialist republic just a couple of short steps from Poland circa 1972. In other words, Democrats managed to pass a useful but rather centrist social reform, and Republicans reacted as though all private property were confiscated and we were herded onto collective farms. It's enough to make one wonder what might have happened if a real-live liberal were to become president and pursue an agenda that even remotely resembles the caricature Republicans present of Barack Obama's.
One thing we can be fairly sure of is that the ideology represented by that agenda would play almost no role in its chances for success or failure. Through no fault of his own, Obama has made sure of that. Republicans' burning hatred of him has set the template for them, one they are likely to use again and again. When he embraced a health-care plan with Republican origins (an individual mandate plus subsidies) or a market-based notion of how to handle climate change (cap and trade), they not only turned away from those ideas but in the process also ran to the right even faster than they had been moving before. At the same time, they went about purging their ranks of anyone who had shown anything less than contempt for the other side. Those moderate (and many not-so-moderate) Republicans purged by Tea Party opponents in primaries will not be coming back.
The result is that in future debates, anything Democrats want to do—almost regardless of its content—will be met with cries of "socialism!" Obama could propose that the entire system of public education be dismantled in favor of private school vouchers, and Republicans would promptly declare the idea to be Marxist social engineering and come out for a system of private education without any taxpayer funds at all. The next Democratic presidential nominee could be Bernie Sanders or Joe Lieberman, and his ideas would be met with precisely the same response.
In many ways, Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for this version of the GOP, bereft of discernible principles and willing to trot to the right at a moment's notice. You may have noticed that despite the predictions of many a pundit, Romney did not "move to the center" upon becoming his party's de facto nominee. There is not a single position he has taken that is at odds with the hard-right persona he established during the primaries—not a single radical nutball he has repudiated, not a single signal he has sent that he will be anything but what the Republican base wants him to be.
And what if Romney loses? The loudest voices in the party will insist that it was only because he was not conservative enough, and the pressure will be on to choose a nominee next time around who genuinely believes all the things Romney pretends to believe (get ready for Santorum '16). Yet there may be a countervailing force within the party, likely led by Karl Rove, arguing that the GOP's problem is a demographic one (Rove understands this well). It has increasingly become the party of white men, an evolution accelerated when its presidential primaries feature endless fear-mongering about immigration and slut-shaming of any woman more free-spirited than Queen Victoria. That demographic narrowing could prove disastrous this year. Ruy Teixeira, one of the clearest-eyed observers of electoral and demographic trends, argues that because of the growth in the minority populations that overwhelmingly support Obama, the president could lose white working-class voters by 28 points and white college-educated voters by 19 points and still win. In other words, he could do just as poorly with whites as Democrats did in the 2010 blowout and still be re-elected.
If that happens, will the Republicans try to moderate ideologically? The truth is, they don't really have to. They were more conservative than ever in 2010 and won a historic electoral victory. Or consider the last Republican president. When he first took control of his party's nominating contest in 2000, George W. Bush was hailed by innumerable commentators as a "different kind of Republican"—someone who could reach out to all kinds of voters with his "compassionate conservatism." He was particularly good at convincing Latino voters that he bore them no ill will and lost their votes by a measly 9 points in 2004 (in the latest polls, Romney trails Obama among Latinos by more than 40 points). Yet what was the policy substance of Bush's presidency? Massive tax cuts for the wealthy, needless wars costing trillions, a gargantuan expansion of the national-security state, a federal judiciary filled with movement conservatives—in other words, an eight-year orgy of conservative wish fulfillment.
Democrats certainly warned from the beginning that there was less compassion than conservatism in Bush's ideas. But they had nothing like the collective freak-out that Republicans had over Barack Obama, casting his center-left accommodationism as a terrifying program to achieve radical socialist tyranny. They will say the same about the next Democratic president, no matter what his or her true leanings. Their own ideology, on the other hand, will be something that most Americans have only the vaguest sense about, and their policy radicalism will be no bar to winning elections. All it will take is the right economic conditions and some symbolic toning-down of their rhetoric to cover the twisted face of anger, resentment, and outright hate that increasingly defines their soul. They've done it before, and there's no reason they can't do it again.