One day in 1981 when I was a reporter for the Wichita Eagle-Beacon in Kansas, an assistant city editor who was notoriously into office politics pointed towards the city desk.
“We’ve gotten rid of all the deadwood,’ he said triumphantly. “We’ve cleaned house on the city desk.”
He was referring to two recently departed assistant city editors. One had accepted a big job at the Philadelphia Inquirer and went on to even bigger corporate things. Another accepted a job as a Kansas City Star editor and later became a Washington Post editor who worked on Pulitzer Prize winning stores.
And this editor? He later ran into rough sailing in his Wichita newspaper career and quietly left the paper.
So was it a case of cleaning house or a clock being cleaned?
And so it goes with a growing debate over what a defeat in 2012 will mean to the losing party.
Whichever party house-cleaning voters nix 2012 will face recriminations from its ideological base over what should have been and what should be.
And the impact of the losing party’s defeat will hinge on what eventually happens with the country’s political center that has steadily moved away from Democratic liberals over the 40 years.
Even with presidential wannabes who look like characters in a rejected SNL sketch, this is a year when the GOP could have it all. It faces a Barack Obama suffering from lethargic poll ratings, a disappointed but still supportive liberal Democrat party base, an economy still far from being completely recovered, high unemployment, and zooming gas prices. The Oval Office should be low hanging fruit – but Republicans make Obama look better and better.
The smart money is still on the nomination going to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who arouses as much excitement as a bowl of cold tofu. The bottom line is that Romney is indeed a moderate Republican pandering to conservatives in an attempt to convince them he converted.
The big question is whether if Romney wins they’ll be enough room for his two faces on Mount Rushmore.
Longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum likens Romney’s relentless drive to the prize to the former Governor’s treatment of his dog Seamus: “Mitt has put voters on the roof of his car, and he’s driving for the nomination whether they like it or not.”
Tea Partiers and other conservatives frantically test new conservative anti-Romneys in their quest for a “real” conservative at the top of the ticket. Independent centrist commentator John Avlon argues: so let them have one.
Avlon contends that giving conservatives everything they want would be “clarifying” for the GOP since it could likely lead to a massive defeat, showing non-compromising conservatives “that it’s unwise to systematically ignore the 40 percent of American voters who identify themselves as independent or the 35 percent who are centrist.”
He suggests that conservatives could get their way and Republicans would learn a lesson if former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is nominated. But Santorum isn’t going anywhere due to his own political negligence. Santorum said he didn’t “care what the unemployment rate’s going to be,” inspired Puerto Rico’s GOPers to repudiate him by saying Puerto Rico must adopt English as the official language for statehood, got mired in rhetoric over contraception and announced that JFK’s church-state speech would make him puke. Santorum is just not ready for prime time. He’s not ready for YouTube.
But Democratic liberals’ complacency and perilous smugness about their viewpoint’s inevitability remains a Democratic Achilles heel. “Nixonland” author Rick Perlstein in Rolling Stone notes “as conservative power has steadily increased since the 1960s, more and more of what conservatives actually believe…has come to shape American society and its institutions.”
But these days Democratic liberals still blabbing about the need for “the public option” are too busy to notice.
The Supreme Court may remind them real soon on Obama’s health care reform.
If Obama tanks, Democrats liberals will clamor for a hard-left 2016 nominee.
If Romney crashes, Tea Partiers will clamor for a hard-right 2016 nominee.
But in 2016 those arguments may be as tough a sell to the center as booking Rush Limbaugh as speaker at a NOW convention.
(Joe Gandelman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)