The ‘96 strategy

Updated
 
George Will eyes "constructive defeat" in the 2012 presidential race.
George Will eyes "constructive defeat" in the 2012 presidential race.
Associated Press

Last week, Rachel talked to Salon’s Steve Kornacki about the 2012 campaign, and he noted that there may come a point at which congressional Republicans stop thinking about the presidential campaign, and start thinking about their own re-election prospects.

No one in the party would ever talk about this publicly, but there may come a point at which GOP officials believe President Obama is going to win re-election. The next question, of course, is what Republicans would do if they grudgingly accept this premise. As Kornacki put it, party leaders may very well conclude, “Let’s save the House, let’s try to win as many of these Senate seats as we can.”

If this strategy sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it before: in 1996, the GOP-led Congress concluded Bill Clinton was likely to win a second term, so Republicans began legislating – for their own benefit – in advance of the election. It mattered less whether it would help the president and more whether it would give lawmakers a record they could run on themselves.

In 1996, it worked for everyone: Clinton won easily, and Republicans kept the House and Senate. Could we see a replay in 2012?

In an important column, conservative George Will argued over the weekend that GOP officials should do exactly that, focusing on “constructive defeat” in the presidential race, because “neither” Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum are “likely to be elected.”

If either is nominated, conservatives should vote for him. But suppose the accumulation of evidence eventually suggests that the nomination of either would subtract from the long-term project of making conservatism intellectually coherent and politically palatable. If so, there would come a point when, taking stock of reality, conservatives turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than, and not much less important than, electing Romney or Santorum president. It is the goal of retaining control of the House and winning control of the Senate.

Several possible Supreme Court nominations and the staffing of the regulatory state are among the important reasons conservatives should try to elect whomever the GOP nominates. But conservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013.

Obviously, Will isn’t making the case in support of an Obama second term, but rather, Will is working under the assumption that the Republican field just isn’t good enough, and by focusing on a Republican-led Congress, the party can mitigate the effects of another four years of a Democratic president.

George Will, it’s worth emphasizing, is not just another conservative voice – he’s the most widely syndicated columnist in the country, and an influential voice in Republican politics. If he’s already lending credence to “the ‘96 strategy,” it’s likely others in the GOP will be more inclined to take it seriously.

There’s no doubt many factors that contribute to this – the improving economy, the “corrosive” effect of the Republican nominating fight, Romney’s underwhelming and unimpressive candidacy – but regardless of the motivations, it’s worth watching to see if Will’s sentiment takes hold in the coming months.

The '96 strategy

Updated