WHY THE ELECTION OUGHT TO BREAK THE GOP'S FEVER (AND WHY IT WON'T)
If there's a silver lining in the poll resurgence Mitt Romney experienced after he cynically rebranded himself as a moderate in the first debate, it's that no one ought to be able to argue ever again that Republicans do best when they run as movement conservatives. Romney ran that way for months, and he languished in the polls against the president; then he shook the Etch A Sketch, started talking like a right-centrist, and pulled even in the popular vote.
Add that to a likely defeat for Todd Akin, a possible loss for Richard Mourdock, and -- who knows, given the fact that the polls are all over the map -- a photo finish between Democrat Richard Carmona and Republican Jeff Flake in Arizona, as well as the possible (likely?) rejection of even moderate-seeming Republicans in Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Massachusetts because of concerns in those states about the direction of the GOP as a whole, and the message ought to be clear: Republicans need to stop being the crazy, extreme party. Voters want Republicans to moderate their views and their rhetoric. Voters want Republicans to back off on extreme positions regarding women, gay people, and immigrants. Change with the times or wither and die. Do as a party what Mitt Romney did as a candidate.
But that won't be the takeaway from this election, for a couple of reasons:
1. Rush Limbaugh
2. Roger Ailes
I think Limbaugh will be too canny to try to argue, as he usually does, that Republicans do best when they run as conservatives -- he'll certainly have a hell of a time making that case if "Moderate Mitt" wins (or nearly wins) the popular vote, and if Romney nearly wins (or, God help us, wins) the Electoral College. So Limbaugh will drop the subject. He won't talk at all about whether this refutes his thesis.
But he are his hundreds of radio imitators have too much invested in the good-vs.-evil narrative to stop pushing it. So they'll go right back to it in the next four years. And Ailes -- well, he just signed another four-year deal to run Fox News, so he's not going to let up.
(In fact, Ailes's right-wing paranoia is becoming so noticeable that even mainstream journalists are starting to detect it. As Media Matters notes, Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine believes Ailes puts Peter Johnson, his personal attorney, on the air at Fox to talk about Ailes's own conspiracy theories -- for instance, that "the Obama administration may have 'sacrificed Americans' as a 'political calculation' in Benghazi" or that Obama "might send American citizens to be tried and executed in Egypt in order to appease anti-American extremists.")
A third reason the GOP won't mellow is that it's still going to be impossible to win a Republican primary in 2014 and 2016 without appealing to the extreme right. Fox and talk radio are by far the biggest recruiting tools for the GOP, and they're sure as hell not encouraging moderation. The moderate voters just aren't there.
Fourth, the paymasters of the GOP now will be the paymasters going forward, and they're not going to mellow.
And, finally, right after the election the mainstream press is going to spend so much time talking about what Obama did wrong this fall that we'll barely hear a word about how Republicans utterly failed to win a winnable election.
It's too bad, because the progressives who keep telling us we have to reject Democrats for failing to live up to our principles (hello, Matt Stoller) might have a point if genuinely right-centrist Republicans could regain some of their lost power, and if a right-centrist had a chance of leading the GOP ticket in 2016.
You could make a case for sitting out an election between an Eisenhower Republican party (the Democrats) and a Bob Dole Republican party (the Republicans). But we're not going to get there, even though the #1 lesson of this election ought to be that the GOP should get there.