Opinion

Is the GOP better off nominating a conservative or a moderate in 2016?

The answer isn't as obvious as liberals claim

Much of the American left and middle takes it as conventional wisdom that the GOP must "move to the center" to survive and thrive in national elections — that without backing a "safe" "establishment" "moderate" like Jeb Bush, half of America will flee in terror from the supposedly-too-conservative-for-our-open-minded-liberal-times GOP.

At the same time, much of conservative America believes in an almost opposite trope: That not only must the GOP stay true to its conservative principles, but that the only Republicans to win presidential elections are conservatives. For obvious (and self-serving) reasons, Ted Cruz is the most forceful current advocate of that latter theory.

So, which is true?

Well, it's complicated.

Ronald Reagan was the first and only movement conservative ever elected president. He won two landslides. One could argue that Reagan was so popular that George H.W. Bush essentially won the Gipper's third term, and that Bush only lost after betraying conservatives and raising taxes (this deserves several asterisks, but it's not an absurd theory).

Then again, other movement conservatives haven't exactly crushed it in presidential elections. Looking at you, Barry Goldwater.

As for the moderates: Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney lost in '96, '08, and '12, respectively. It's probably not fair to blame McCain's moderation; it's unlikely anyone would have defeated Obama in 2008. But one could certainly argue that Romney might have won in 2012 had he fired up and turned out more of the conservative base.

The Washington Examiner's Philip Klein recently endorsed the theory that conservatives win modern presidential elections while moderate Republicans lose them. But he posited an ironic reason: It's best for Republicans to nominate true conservatives because moderates are forced to act more "severely" conservative than someone who is authentically a right-winger. "When base voters implicitly trust a candidate, they're more likely to give that candidate the benefit of the doubt when he or she tries to communicate a message to appeal to the broader electorate, because they assume that deep down that candidate 'gets it' and is 'one of us,'" Klein writes.

This is key. It doesn't necessarily matter how conservative the nominee is; what matters is that the base accepts the nominee, believes in who he or she really is, and is willing to tolerate centrist flirtations, real or perceived, from this candidate in the general election.

And that brings us to the modern GOP nominee that I overlooked above. As Dave Weigel has noted, George W. Bush — hardly a movement conservative, despite what Democrats screechingly claimed during the Bush years — presents a problem for the theory that only truly conservative Republicans win general elections.

You might try to revise history to explain this away: "George W. Bush ran as a real conservative in 2000, but only later squished out with things like Medicare Part D, immigration reform, and No Child Left Behind." But this is essentially nonsense. Bush ran for president as a "compassionate conservative" (in the dog whistling of partisan politics, this is supposed to sound like "not conservative," or at least "nice conservative," to blue and purple America). Bush said, "Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River." His convention featured speakers like Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger,and Condi Rice. And he openly criticized House Republicans, saying of their plan to save $8.7 billion, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor."

Can you imagine a Republican candidate today saying and doing those things? He would be crucified by the conservative base.

But in 2000, base voters were largely willing to overlook this "hippie" talk. Maybe it was because Dubya had swagger — or maybe it's because conservatives were so desperate for a winner, and he looked like he could beat Al Gore. Either way, like Bill Clinton, Bush was given the leeway by his base to appeal to the center, and it worked.

Since the base doesn't seem likely to grant much leeway this time around, and doesn't appear to be in the mood to ascribe to the "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" philosophy, the GOP had better choose someone that conservatives find at least seem minimally acceptable.

Are Republicans better off with a conservative candidate in '16? We rate this one "mostly true."

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