The party Huntsman imagined -- modernizing, reforming, and youthful -- could still be born. That might be the reaction to a second smashing defeat at Obama's hands, or that might be where President Romney takes his re-election campaign. But it's now hard to see Huntsman leading that change. He bet, too early, on a fantasy, and ran for the nomination of a party that doesn't exist, at least not yet. His decision tonight to drop out just marks his recognition of that fact.The second hypothetical, in which a President Romney maneuvers the party toward the center, is the worst nightmare of tea party and social conservatives. As president, Romney would likely marginalize the right with business-friendly, relatively moderate policies appealing to a congressional coalition of center-right Republicans and centrist Democrats. If you add anti-Mormon evangelicals to the mix, some predict that Romney's nomination would portend one of those fabled general elections when conservatives stay home.
"BuzzFeed" thinks an Obama win might trigger a Republican Reformation. But conservative bigwigs who may choose to give Romney faint support in 2012 would be aiming not to reform but re-Reagan. If Romney lost, they would continue to militate for someone more worthy to wear the pompadour in 2016. Four years ago, prominent strategist Ed Rollins hinted that a John McCain loss would at least give the GOP the advantage of returning to its Goldwater-Reagan roots. I have no doubt that this magical thinking will persist indefinitely among conservatives even though Americans elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 strictly because he wasn't Jimmy Carter. A far-right Republican won't ever win an election because she's far right, only because the country's in a ditch and she happens to be on the scene with a tow truck.
Calculating politicos are one thing. Would substantial numbers of actual right-wing voters spurn Romney in hopes of making sure that a Manchurian moderate doesn't become the de facto king of conservatism? Like most second terms, Obama's would be uneventful on the domestic policy front while he grappled with the coming storm over Iran and pushed for progress on Palestine. The tactical voter might construe this as the perfect opportunity to repair to the lab to work some more on Reaganstein. I just don't know very many people who actually think that way when they vote. Do you? Part of being an American is letting the parties do their best or worst and then pulling the lever in November, holding your nose if necessary.
That would make Romney's nomination an historic event in itself. From the tea party to Fox News, conservatives have never been as vocal or well organized, and yet they're on the verge of a massive failure. We may debate about who the real Romney is. I believe he's a diligent and relatively enlightened guy who fudged what he believes about abortion, gay rights, and the role of government in order to survive the Republican fire swamp. His alternatives were not running and switching parties. In any event, neither he nor Obama will be able to evade his record in the general election. Dare we hope for a substantive national conservation between serious people?