Many conservatives are consoling themselves that a time of political exile will do them good, a chance to purify the Republican party for a later comeback. Michael Medved, a political conservative himself, says that just does not happen:
History shows conclusively that a bitter defeat never pushes a conservative party farther right, or pushes a liberal party further left. Instead, political organizations that experience harsh rejection from the electorate move instinctively, inevitably toward the center in quest of precisely those middle-of-the-road voters who abandoned them in the previous contest. After outspoken conservative Barry Goldwater led the GOP to an overwhelming defeat in 1964, the nominees that followed (Nixon twice and then Gerald Ford) clearly represented the more moderate wing of the party. When unapologetic liberal George McGovern brought the Democrats a ruinous 49-state drubbing in 1972, they followed with a long series of relatively centrist, purportedly non-ideological candidates (Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore), reliably shunning the strong leftist contingent within their coalition.
There is simply no historical model for the process of party defeat, purification and rejuvenation that some deluded conservatives recommend. Consider the sad state of the Republican Party during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. In 1928, Herbert Hoover represented the most moderate, or even progressive, nominee since Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. When Hoover got crushed by FDR in 1932, the Republicans didn’t turn back to solid conservatives in the Coolidge tradition. Instead they kept nominating moderates (Alf Landon, former Democrat Wendell Wilkie, New York progressive Tom Dewey twice, and then the non-ideological General Eisenhower) in the often forlorn hope that they could woo wavering independents or conservative Democrats away from the New Deal coalition. Not even five consecutive defeats on the Presidential level led the Republicans to shift to a more conservative, ideologically rigorous posture.
Today, Barack Obama is running an unusually explicit liberal campaign, and if he loses the presidency the Democrats will almost certainly adopt a more centrist, “New Democrat” image for the next campaign. If, on the other hand, McCain and Palin lose, political operatives will (for better or worse) steer the Republican Party even further toward the middle of the road, seeking a more moderate (or at least “inclusive”) image to attract the centrist, independent, undecided voters who decide almost all elections.
In other words, a McCain victory would force the Democrats to turn to the right, while a McCain defeat would almost certainly send Republicans scurrying toward the mushy center.
I suspect Medved is right in describing how political parties respond, even though the strategy of being moderate won the Republican few elections.
So how did Ronald Reagan start a conservative dynasty so soon after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat?