Worst-Case Scenarios

In David Frum’s most recent op-ed, he describes the “menu of possibilities” for non-Tea Party Republicans in 2012. His second possibility –- in which Mitt Romney wins the nomination but loses the general election -– is one I’ve been thinking about for some time. Here is Frum’s assessment of what might happen as a result of that outcome:

If candidate Romney loses, tea party Republicans will claim that the GOP lost because it failed to nominate a “true conservative.” That claim may fly in the face of political math (how would a more extreme candidate win more votes?), but it will pack a lot of emotional punch…Back-to-back losses under John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 will open the way to an ultra-conservative nominee in 2016 – and a true party debacle.

If you take the view that today’s Republican Party is dangerously extreme in its rejection of institutional norms and raw pursuit of power –- and that this stands to do huge damage to America in the long-term –- then the best outcome for 2012 is one in which a representative of this militant conservatism, like Rick Perry, is decisively beaten at the polls. In this world, electoral defeat will lead Republicans to re-evaluate their vision of conservative utopia, reject the extremists, and rejoin the Democratic Party as a responsible governing partner.

The issue with Mitt Romney, as Frum points out, is that if he loses, the odds are slim that right-wing Republicans will walk away chastened. Tea Party Republicans can easily tar Romney as just another liberal and double-down on the right-wing extremism in hopes of nominating a “real conservative” to the top of the GOP presidential ticket. For the rest of us, this means another four years of instransigence, brinksmanship, and a casual disregard for the norms of governance.

On the other hand, if Romney wins the election, there’s a chance that Republicans will feel vindicated in their strategy of the last three years, in which case, we can expect government to grind to a complete halt, as Democrats seek to replicate the tactics of congressional Republicans and their allies.