Instead, image alone has proved to be the strongest legacy of Republican moderates. The centrist diaspora, which has lost the ideological battles but still controls important real estate in the Wall Street and Washington quarters of the GOP establishment, prefers a candidate to whom it can relate. Its members doubt that conservative firebrands and Southern fundamentalists, for all their grass-roots appeal, can win general elections.
“If there is an establishment, we look at who can be elected,” said Dole, the 1996 presidential nominee — who, it should be noted, handily lost the general election to Bill Clinton after overcoming protests on his right from Newt Gingrich and others. Today, he is supporting Mitt Romney. “My man is winning,” he said.
The establishment’s enduring belief that unmitigated conservatives cannot win the big one has its roots in the disastrous nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Not only did Goldwater’s hostile takeover of the GOP convention lead to a rout by Lyndon Johnson, but Republicans suffered in all levels of government, down to local sheriff’s races.
For the GOP grandees, the lesson was clear: put forward a candidate whose platform resonated with the growing and increasingly conservative base, but whose connections and countenance put moderates at ease. According to Kabaservice, the author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party,” Reagan himself moderated his conservative rhetoric — and his style of governing — in the years following Goldwater’s defeat.
But after Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, which many conservatives consider an existential threat to their view of America, the current crop of long-shot candidates is arguing that it is time to unlearn the Goldwater lesson and reject another Romney.