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Life after Mitt: Tim Stanley on the Republican future

Tom Cutterham

Tim Stanley is a Supernumerary Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford, and blogs regularly for the Telegraph and CNN. He received a PhD in US History from Cambridge in 2008, and recently published a biography of Pat Buchanan called The Crusader (Thomas Dunne, 2012). Here he speaks to the Oxonian Review about the outcome of the Presidential election, and the future of the Republican party.

Where did it all go wrong for Romney?

Romney lost for three reasons. A) He wasn’t the best candidate. Although a good man, his background in private equity made him an inappropriate pick for an election that landed in the middle of a recession. He’d u-turned too often and lacked an ability to motivate blue-collar conservatives. B) The Republicans were out-organised. In Ohio, Obama had almost more than 100 offices than Romney. C) Obama benefited from certain long term demographic trends—including the growth of the Hispanic vote and the liberal attitudes of the young. Overall, I felt this was Romney’s election to lose. Unemployment was high and the President’s approval ratings were in the mid-40s most of the year.

That said, Romney isn’t an historically disastrous candidate (despite losing). He only lost by a margin of roughly 3% against an incredibly well-financed, charismatic incumbent. This puts Romney in the league of John Kerry—not Walter Mondale. It also means that the “lessons” to be drawn from this loss for the Republicans are more nuanced than the media think.

You say that the lessons for Republicans are more nuanced than the media think. So what are they? How, especially, should the Republican Party respond to the demographic trends you mentioned? Will we see Republican leaders rolling back their anti-immigration rhetoric, and perhaps their climate-change denialism too?

The lessons of the defeat are complicated by what the Republicans can structurally do about them. The conservative movement at the heart of the GOP remains huge—roughly $2 billion in funding and 10 million activists. Any nominee needs those folks to win a primary campaign. He/she also needs the votes of the 42% who describe themselves as conservative in the general population. In short, the Republicans are compelled to remain fairly rigidly conservative for some time. Recall that in 1992, moderates (Thompson, Weld) also made the case that the GOP had to move to the centre…and it never happened. We can blame that partly on Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition, who made sure that the only way to win the primary season was by moving to the Right. Put it this way—a pro-choice Republican is NEVER going to become president.

I’m reluctant to prescribe what the Republicans should do to win the presidency (seems a little arrogant), but they ought to take note of the growing Hispanic vote and evidence that America’s cultural values are shifting. America will always be religious, but I sense that certain sexual attitudes will someday seem as outdated as Prohibition. By contrast, there is always value in populism. At its best, the Tea Party articulate the values of a squeezed middle of angry voters. If that populism could be detoxified, it would become more potent. Rick Santorum but with a happy face.

What kind of Republican candidate do you see being most successful in four years time? And what kind of Democrat will he or she face?

It’s impossible to predict who will be the nominee for either party in four years time, but some names may be floated. Marco Rubio ought to be a candidate for the Republican ticket, as should Bobby Jindal (and by then, the term “ethnic minorities” will probably seem quaint). On the Democrat side, Biden and Clinton might step in—but an interesting one to watch is Governor O’Malley of Maryland.

Do you think the experience of Mitt Romney will warn Republicans against looking for experience in big business and corporate finance in the future? And what about the influence of the Tea Party—any changes to look for there?

The Tea Party will continue to exert an influence if not in name. It’s not unreasonable to say that a future GOP candidate will have to be a little more populist and even homely—but it doesn’t come natural to the Republican establishment. The bottom line is that it’s four years away and predictions are foolish. I would never have said in 2004 that the inexperienced, self-invented junior senator from Illinois would be a serious candidate for the presidency. But, to use an obscene statement from my youth, Weird Shit Happens.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is editor-in-chief at the Oxonian Review.