WASHINGTON — Republicans don't want to talk about it, but the question is already an awful thought not so far back in their minds: What happens to the GOP if President Bush loses the election?
For starters, Karl Rove, Bush's powerful political adviser, would no longer be called a boy genius, although party insiders insist there would be less blame of him and Bush than might be expected. Assuming that the party retains control of the Senate, Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee would emerge as one of the most important Republicans in the country. So would Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Bush's former nemesis. Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative who urged the president into war with Iraq, would not.
But on the central question of whether a loss would shift the party more to the center, Republicans say no. Yes, there would be a huge fight over Iraq. Yes, there would be bigger fault lines between the tax-cutters and deficit hawks. And yes, the party would experience a massive depression as it picked itself up from the loss. But Republicans say that a defeat of Bush would not usher in a moderate new era.
"I don't think we have to overhaul the Republican party under any circumstance," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is writing a book on America in the 21st century. "We have the governors of the four largest states, we have the House, we have the Senate, and the senator from Massachusetts is going to Ohio to hunt two weeks before the election. John Kerry is having to pretend to be us."
Republicans note that when their party lost in 1960, 1976 and 1992, conservatives argue that moderates — Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and the elder George Bush — had been given their chance in the party and had lost it. But if President Bush goes down in 2004, it would be the first time that a clear conservative candidate whom Republicans had expected to win was defeated.
"Generally it causes a great soul-searching within the party," said David R. Gergen, a professor of public service at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a veteran of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton White Houses. "I don't think that is going to happen. Conservatives will argue that it's not because of our conservatism that we lost. They'll look for scapegoats on the national security team. They'll say the war was a good idea, it was just poorly executed."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would be blamed, Gergen said, although an election victory would just as quickly make him a hero. "It's one of those things that you're only a bum if you lose," Gergen said. "Rather than blaming the ideas, they'll blame the people."
McCain, Gergen said, would become a power broker — the Republican senator in the Kerry administration who could build bridges to his friend the president, and who could swing key votes for the Democrats.
Republicans agreed that Iraq would be the major post-election fight should Bush lose, with the neoconservatives who pushed for the invasion as prime targets. "There will be firing squads and an attempted purge," said William Kristol, the editor of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard and a longtime advocate of the war. "We'll fight back. It'll be fun."
But arguments over Iraq would not fundamentally change the party, Republicans insisted. "Bush lost because of Iraq — OK, but that doesn't suggest a change in policy, because Iraq was not central to any part of the Republican Party or its philosophy," said Grover Norquist, a leading conservative and the president of Americans for Tax Reform. "It was a judgment call. It may have been a good idea; it may have been a bad idea. So the Republican Party will decide not to do more Iraqs. If you weren't the president, you weren't doing Iraqs anyway. The party will continue to be anti-tax and push for more. We will still be the deregulation party, and still the free trade party."
Republicans say they do not expect a major shift toward the foreign policy of Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush's national security adviser, who set off an op-ed bomb in the summer of 2002 when he publicly questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq. Although some would feel more free to criticize the president's dream of democracy springing forth from the Middle East, the party would continue to believe in American exceptionalism and expansionism, Republicans said, with strong support for military force around the world.
"Brent Scowcroft represents the center right of the old foreign policy establishment, and that establishment has no real future in Republican Party politics," said Walter Russell Mead, a Democrat who is the Henry A. Kissinger fellow in United States foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Part of it is just the sheer passage of time." While people like Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage could carry on that tradition, that would only happen, Mead said, in a Republican administration in 2008. "These guys only come alive when a president picks them," he said.
With Kerry in power trying to solve Iraq, Mead added, Republicans would be every bit as furious as the Democrats are now with Bush. "War makes everybody angry," Mead said. "And the war is self-legitimizing because in war everything is important. So what you have is angry partisans telling themselves that what they feel is patriotic rage. The Republicans in opposition will be just as effective at hating."
Besides Iraq, Republicans said the party would engage in intramural battles over its positions on gay marriage, gun control, health care and taxes. "For two or three months, we'll have symposia and write articles about what went wrong, but pretty quickly the new agenda will get defined by the world and the Kerry administration, and we'll get all into that," Kristol said.
Even with the defeat of Bush and potential lost seats in the Northeast, Republicans predicted gains for the party in the South and West, which would increase the power of the evangelicals and further defining the Republicans as the anti-abortion, anti-stem cell and pro-gun party. At the same time, Republicans said that a Kerry administration would minimize their enormous advantage in corporate contributions and make them compete harder for money on the Internet.
As for Bush, Republicans said that there would be second-guessing about whether he and Rove should have tried to define Kerry as a liberal earlier, way back in March, rather than waiting until the final weeks of the campaign. But over all, Republicans predicted that Bush would remain popular with the grass roots of his party and be treated like a party statesman, not a pariah.
"We haven't done that historically," said Norquist. "Nobody's been mean to Gerald Ford, and other than saying that Bush 41 was wrong about his tax increase, nobody hates him and shuns him for it. Compare that to how the Democrats have treated Gore, Mondale and Dukakis."
And would George W. Bush run again in 2008? Republicans called it unlikely. "He's so comfortable not being president," Gergen said.