The Temptation to Go Rogue

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Why a moderate Republican nominee may inspire an especially immoderate campaign season

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If Mitt Romney wins the Republican primary, as likely an outcome as any if polls are to be believed, he'll have done so despite opposition from talk radio hosts, a policy record that includes a prominent heresy on a controversial issue, and widespread questions about whether he'd excite the base enough to win a general election.

Sound familiar?

It's basically where Sen. John McCain found himself four years ago. Rush Limbaugh hated him. Rank and file Republicans could hardly bring themselves to stomach his record on immigration. And he judged himself to be so weak a candidate that he pondered two risky VP choices: Sen. Joe Lieberman, in order to burnish his support among independents, and Gov. Sarah Palin, expected to be a darling of the GOP base.

The rest is history.

Judging weakness with the base as the bigger concern, McCain brought Palin onto the ticket, the conservative movement rallied around her, talk radio focused on attacking Barack Obama, the McCain campaign increasingly employed Palin as part attack grizzly, part culture warrior, and the strategy backfired with swing voters.

Is history going to repeat itself?

Should a long primary contest result in a Mitt Romney victory, the conditions will be right. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin, having blasted a health-care mandate as tyranny incarnate, won't be able to champion the man with any enthusiasm, especially if they wind up backing one of his primary opponents. But neither are they going to sit out the general election or refrain from attacking Obama. They've spent too long arguing that he's destroying America.

Given a more bombastic, uncompromising nominee, cable news and talk radio personalities would focus on making the positive case for the standard bearer's November victory. It's good for ratings to tout the favorite of the base. Whereas if Romney is the nominee, the hosts will get flak from some quarters if they hypocritically embrace him, and flak from other quarters if they're seen as doing too little to defeat Obama. It's easy to see the solution: focus all their vitriol on the president, and increase the virulence of their attacks on him.  

Of course, having cinched the nomination, there is one way that Romney could attract enthusiastic, direct support for the GOP's presidential ticket: name as his running mate someone like Rep. Michele Bachmann. In any case, he'll be tempted to pick someone to run alongside him who'll get out the conservative vote. In practice, that means divisive rhetoric that costs support among swing voters.

That's the challenge for the GOP: It cannot win back the White House without appealing to moderates, but its base demands, as a condition of enthusiastic support, a style of rhetoric almost certain to turn everyone else off. Thus the constant temptations to go rogue, whether from the campaign itself or its unaffiliated partisans in the media. It's a conundrum McCain never managed to overcome. Romney would be positioned a bit better as a candidate -- the Bush legacy is less in the mind of voters, and Obama is weaker than he once was. Is that enough?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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