Would a Rick Santorum Candidacy Teach the GOP a Valuable Political Lesson?

Our political Quote of the Day comes from The Daily Beast’s John Avlon, who suggests that if Republican conservatives get their way and nominate Rick Santorum as President it could wind up teaching the GOP a useful lesson — and lead to a far different party in 2016 and beyond.

In my chats with friends and in emails I’ve often argued the same kind of thing: if the GOP nominated a candidate way out of the mainstream it would a)give those Republicans who suggest that aggregating interests is not important their political moment in the sun b)the moment in the sun would likely lead to a sunstroke of a political defeat c)it could lead to the GOP being reshaped by the Jeb Bushes and Chris Christies who cannot be confused with Tea Party members or hardcore Rush Limbaugh listeners.

Here are some chunks of Avlon’s argument, with a few of my pithy comments:

A cleansing bout of craziness in 2012 could be just what the GOP needs.

I’m talking about a nominee so far to the right that conservative populists get their fondest wish—and the Republican Party is forced to learn from the result. Namely, that there is such a thing as too extreme.

The dangerous groupthink delusion being pushed in conservative circles over the last few years is that ideological purity and electability are one and the same. It is an idea more rooted in faith than reason.

If Mitt Romney does finally wrestle the nomination to the ground, and then loses to Obama, conservatives will blame the loss on his alleged moderation. The right wing take-away will be to try to nominate a true ideologue in 2016.

But if someone like Rick Santorum gets the nomination in an upset, the party faithful will get to experience the adrenaline rush of going off a cliff together, like Thelma and Louise—elation followed by an electoral thud.

Avlon is correct. I’m now on the last 10 weeks of a 9 month national car trip that is taking me to cities around the country. I’ve been most struck by the comments of people who said they are or have been Republicans who feel their party’s Presidential wannabes are too far out there for them. These folks are agonizing about what they’ll do in 2012: do they sit out the election or hold their nose and vote for Obama? I get the feeling some of these voters will stay home. MORE:

This could be educational. After all, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you recognize your problems.

Giving a self-identified “full-spectrum conservative” theo-con like Santorum the nomination would mean we’d really have a “choice, not an echo” election in November. Republicans would be forced to confront the fact that talk about Satan attacking America, negative obsessions with homosexuality, contraception and opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest alienates far more people than they attract.

Our politics are looking more and more like a cult because of unprecedented polarization—any issue where there is deviation from accepted orthodoxy leads to an attempted purge. It is absurd that clownish conservative caricatures like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were briefly elevated to the top of the polls while more sober-minded presidential candidates with executive experience like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman Jr. failed to gain any traction. The result is the weakest Republican field in living memory.

Avlon notes that Romney was considered a conservative favorite in 2008 and is now being painted as a RINO. On the other hand, I remember in 2008 how many talk show hosts dissed Romney until he was the very last candidate standing who they felt could go up against the hated John McCain. AND:

But in a tribal time, ideological apparatchiks have outsize influence. They come to debates armed with their own facts. In their Kool-Aid-laden retelling of recent political history, unsuccessful GOP nominees like John McCain lost because of his independent center-right profile (rather than a backlash against the excesses of the Bush administration or the nomination of Sarah Palin). Barry Goldwater’s 44-state loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 is recast as a triumph because it allegedly led to Reagan’s landslide … 16 years later. Nixon’s 49-state win in 1972 is stripped from the history books as winning candidates with shades of gray in their resume—Ike’s successful center-right two terms, George H.W. Bush’s country-club conservatism, or even W’s 2000 call for “compassionate conservatism”—are ignored as ideologically inconvenient.

Goldwater would be attacked as a RINO today for his rejection of the religious right, his wife’s cofounding of Planned Parenthood in Arizona, or his early support of gays serving in the military. Some conservative activists turned on Reagan during his White House years (the editor of the Conservative Digest memorably wrote in the early ’80s, “Sometimes I wonder how much of a Reaganite Reagan really is”). Almost by definition, absolutists oversimplify, turning everything into a fight between angels and devils.

Indeed: in his super book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, Gil Troy classifies Ronald Reagan as a moderate because Reagan was willing to work with (and outfox) the Democrats and compromise.

Giving conservative activists everything they want in a presidential nominee would ultimately be clarifying for the Republican Party. It would break the fever that has afflicted American politics turning fellow citizens against one another. It would restore a sense of balance, recognizing that it is unwise to systemically ignore the 40 percent of American voters who identify themselves as independent or the 35 percent who are centrist. After all, a successful political party requires both wings to fly.

There’s nothing like losing 40 states to refocus the mind.

To be sure, it seems some GOPers would rather have an election end with a dead elephant than a live RINO.

And if they nominate Santorum, there’s a good chance they’ll get their wish.