For Mitt Romney, the past week has been defined by bad polling news, brutal press coverage and some very public second-guessingfrom his own party. It’s not out of the question that he’ll still end up winning in November, but Romney’s status as the underdog was cemented this week, a development that raises a crucial longer-term question: What direction will the Republican Party take if it fails to unseat Barack Obama?
Conventional wisdom holds that the GOP will respond to a presidential election defeat the same way it did four years ago: by shifting even farther to the right, placing even more of a premium on “purity,” and nominating even more non-traditional outsider candidates. I’ve been reluctant to embrace this view because of what happened the last time Republicans lost to an incumbent Democratic president.
They don’t like to admit it now, but the GOP’s opposition to Bill Clinton in the 1990s was just as feverish and unyielding as its opposition to Obama has been. And just like in the Obama years they were initially rewarded for it, with a landslide triumph in the 1994 midterms. Also just like today, the Clinton-era GOP fielded a presidential challenger with a reputation less conservative than the party base’s mood, Bob Dole.
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