Only once since Harry Truman was president has one of our two great parties won three presidential elections in a row, and after that happened — George H.W. Bush's 1988 win was the last — the party that lost all three opted to nominate someone who promised to take them in a different direction. The moderate southerner Bill Clinton proposed a "Third Way" between liberalism and conservatism that would provide practical solutions to problems, most particularly the problem Democrats had winning the White House.
Now try to imagine a Republican four years from now doing the same thing. How likely does it seem?
It may not be easy to tell from today's vantage point, but possibility of a third consecutive loss is what Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus ruminated on last week, when he told the Washington Examiner, "I do think that we're cooked as a party for quite a while as a party if we don't win in 2016."
Priebus shouldn't be so pessimistic. Even in the worst-case scenario, one in which they not only failed to win the White House but lost control of the Senate as well, they'd still probably hold on to the House, not to mention most of the nation's governors and state legislatures. Indeed, it's that backstop against complete failure that would probably prevent the GOP from undergoing any serious change even if they did lose the presidential race.
That's because if they're left with a power base, the incentive to do some kind of wholesale reimagining of what they stand for, who they represent, and how they do business will be dramatically lower than if they had lost almost everything. They can still tell themselves, "If we just get that one thing right in 2020, it'll all come together."
And they'll be right, at least to a degree. The next time Republicans have control of the White House and Congress, it's going to be an orgy of legislating that would make Caligula blush. That's not to say they won't find plenty to argue about amongst themselves, but the prospect of doing all the things they've wanted to do for years is going to provide comfort on many a cold night between now and then.
But Congress, and the House in particular, is both the source of the GOP's problem and the force that prevents them from solving it. Even as Republicans in Congress enjoy approval ratings somewhere between those of O.J. Simpson and that kid at UConn who demanded his jalapeno bacon mac and cheese, the party's hold on the House is almost completely secure. That's partly because of gerrymandering — the last round of redistricting came after Republicans won big in 2010, so Republicans were in control in most state legislatures after the census — but mostly because Republican voters are distributed more efficiently than Democratic voters. If you have lots of seats where 80 or 90 percent of the constituents are from your party, as Democrats do in urban areas, then you've essentially wasted a bunch of surplus votes you could have used elsewhere.
The fact that different kinds of people live where they live is the largest force keeping Republicans in control of the House. And as the Republican caucus there has grown dramatically more conservative, its members have become less interested in compromise to move legislation, let alone changing the party's identity to appeal to a changing America. As Thomas Schaller wrote in his recent book The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress But Surrendered the White House, "This shift created a feedback loop between the institution and ideology, in which the GOP's power became more concentrated in Congress as the party became more conservative, and the party became more conservative as it became more anchored to Capitol Hill."
Conservatives like the ones now dominating the House (and making it excruciating to find a new speaker) tell themselves a self-serving story about recent elections, in which Republicans only lose when they nominate a faint-hearted squish like Mitt Romney or John McCain. If they lose again in 2016, that story will not change. Whoever the nominee was, he'll be retroactively classified as not a "real" conservative, just as George W. Bush was, and they'll be more sure than ever that what they need to do to win it all is to move even farther to the right.
Nevertheless, there would be many people in the party pushing back on that narrative and arguing that just as Democrats did after 1988, Republicans have to change if they want to win back the White House. They might win that argument, and out of the ashes of another presidential loss could rise a new, modern Republican Party, one with greater national appeal. But the same dynamics that today require their presidential candidates to so aggressively move to the right will still be in force, no matter how little sense it might make.