A common meme percolating today goes like this: Republicans must just settle for Mitt Romney. He’s the only one who can beat Barack Obama. He is serious. The others aren’t. So let’s be pragmatic.
Interestingly, many of the folks advocating this narrative — which presumably would help Republicans defeat Obama — tend to not be terribly conservative. Perhaps they are well meaning?–but their motives are questionable. My suspicion is many of them would turn on Romney the moment he became the nominee. Regardless, let’s take their argument at face value and put this in a bit of historical perspective…
As far as I can tell, there were just two times in modern history when Republicans were anything other than pragmatic in picking a nominee: 1964 and in 1980. (There is a reason that the saying, “Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line” caught on — it has largely been true.)
In 1964, of course, Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide. In 1980, they nominated Ronald Reagan who won in a landslide.
This is not to say Republicans or conservatives always held their noses and sacrificed their dreams on the altar of electability — many conservatives supported George W. Bush. But make no mistake, he was also the pragmatic choice (just as Bob Dole was the pragmatic choice in 1996 and George H.W. Bush was the pragmatic choice in 1988.)
Reagan’s election was obviously a huge success for the GOP and conservatism — and Goldwater’s defeat — one could argue — planted the seeds for Reagan. (To be sure, there are no Ronald Reagan’s running this year. On the other hand, going the pragmatic route hasn’t always worked out, either. Republicans have nominated safe moderates who have gone on to lose.)
The lesson, perhaps, is that Republican voters typically do settle on the pragmatic nominee — and they may do so again this year. But on the rare occasions — when they have tried the quixotic thing (despite the hand-wringing) — conservatism has arguably gained more from the experience. It’s hard to predict how things ultimately shake out in the end. In politics, sometimes you win when you lose and sometimes you lose when you win.