Losing an election you were certain to win is never easy. Up against a President who had a sustained high level of unemployment for all his term in office, Republicans had an opportunity to make this a one-term administration. They also believed they would make gains in the Senate, if not win it outright. None of this happened, and Republicans have offered divergent views about what went wrong, and what needs to be done.
In the aftermath of an electoral setback, the priority must be directed to finding the reasons for the defeat before embarking on the quest to victory in 2016. Here, the GOP has had a range of conflicting explanations, from outright denial (Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh) to acceptance that the GOP went wayward (David Frum, Bobby Jindal, Newt Gingrich ). And Mitt Romney’s post-election conference call to a group of large donors, in which he explained his loss by alluding to Obama “gifts” to specific voting blocs has only added to the confusion—and to a further divergence of views—among leading Republicans.
The prevailing short-term interpretation for the Republican loss on November 6 fails to admit that the party had moved so far to the extreme that moderate Republicans failed to apply for the 2012 nomination, with the exception of former ambassador Jon Hunstman. Romney, originally a moderate Massachusetts Republican governor and son of a moderate Republican governor, strayed so far out of his ideological comfort zone in order to gain the nomination that he came across as disconnected, insincere, and unprincipled. Bill Clinton referred to him as a Cirque Du Soleil contortionist. He will soon become a footnote in the history books—as most losing presidential candidates do—or maybe he’ll be held up as an example of what not to do to: flip flop on your core convictions and pander to an extremist party base.
The fiscal cliff debate will be the first test not only for the reelected Obama, but also for the Republican Party. Here, the GOP congressional leadership of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have the upper hand—an opportunity to steer the direction of their party. Should they strike a workable deal with the Obama administration, hope will begin to surface that maybe, just maybe, the Republicans are paying attention to the expectations of the political mainstream, and not just the far-out lunatic fringe led by Rush Limbaugh and no-new-taxes guru, Grover Norquist.
The next test would be immigration reform, an issue President Obama will want to deal with before the mid terms in 2014. The Republicans, especially potential 2016 aspirants, are expected to be open to reform, so as to remove the issue from the next presidential campaign. If the Republicans were to participate in bipartisan immigration reform it would make the Latino vote more competitive down the road.
The Republican Party base, however, remains susceptible to ideological movement conservatives or interest groups such as Grover Norquist, the Libertarians, religious right conservatives, the Tea Party, and the re-emerging neo-conservatives—all of whom are responsible for forcing the GOP outside the mainstream. This being said, if there is a deal on the fiscal cliff and immigration reform in the short to medium term, the lure of the presidency in 2016 may finally lead Republican candidates to emerge with an agenda that brings the party base closer to the political center and gives them a better shot at the White House. The alternative is a repeat of this year’s results—and no Republican wants that.