A 2012 fork in the road: Should the GOP play to the base or to centrists?

The main lesson Republicans might take from this admittedly selective contrast is that chasing the applause of the faithful, even in a party that is more ideologically cohesive, generally gets you only so far. Aspirants at this week’s forum can elevate themselves by playing, both rhetorically and substantively, to a base that’s virulently anti-Washington and anti-Obama. But the wider primary electorate may judge such stridently partisan candidates to be unelectable.

What Mr. Clinton proved, however, is that laying out a more affirmative vision of what the party should stand for, and trying to persuade activists of its merits, makes for a more enduring campaign, both in the primaries and in November. This would suggest that if you’re Mr. Thune or Mr. Daniels, you don’t necessarily have to win the approval of everyone in the room at CPAC; you just have to convince them, over time, that yours is the vision that will ultimately attract enough independent voters to return the party to power…

The reality, though, is that Republicans remain discredited on the presidential level by the failures of the Bush years, and winning back the White House will most likely require more recasting of the party’s traditional message than winning back the House did. “The hardest truth,” says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, “is that we won in 2010 because independents behaved like Republicans. And we need to do that again in 2012.”