The results of the election aren't in yet, but the battle to frame them is already well underway.
If Mitt Romney loses the election, moderate forces within the Republican Party will argue that it was because Tea Party extremists moved him too far to the right during the primaries, and the media will amplify those voices. In contrast, if Romney wins, it will be framed as a triumph of his moderation and used to argue that he should abandon conservatives and govern as a liberal if elected.
In the New York Times this Tuesday, David Brooks already telegraphed this argument.
If elected, Brooks wrote, "Romney would probably be faced with a Democratic Senate. He would also observe the core lesson of this campaign: conservatism loses; moderation wins. Romney's prospects began to look decent only when he shifted to the center. A President Romney would look at the way Tea Party extremism had cost the G.O.P. Senate seats in Delaware and Nevada -- and possibly Missouri and Indiana."
Yet Brooks' simple declaration, "conservatism loses; moderation wins," isn't quite borne out by reality. In 2010, Tea Party energy was responsible for the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives and gains in the Senate. Granted, the nomination of Christine O'Donnell cost Republicans a Senate victory in Delaware. But as poor a candidate as Sharron Angle was in Nevada, there's no evidence that any of the other Republican candidates running in the primary would have been able to defeat the formidable machine of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. At the same time, strong Tea Party-backed candidates such as Sens. Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson won in traditionally blue states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, respectively.
Brooks' attempt to blame a likely GOP Senate defeat in Missouri on the Tea Party is laughable, considering that Tea Party groups universally opposed Todd Akin's nomination. And his formula that "moderation wins" may have to grapple with the defeat of Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson -- the moderate establishment pick who fended off a Tea Party challenge in the primary.
As the 2012 campaign enters its final days, Romney's chances and the prospects of every Republican candidate will depend on grassroots activists pounding on doors and making phone calls to get voters to the polls. Those activists won't be coming from the "moderation wins" caucus that holds so much sway in New York and Washington, but from those who want Romney and Paul Ryan to follow through on their promises to restrain government spending, reduce regulation and avoid tax increases.
It's an oversimplification to suggest that independent voters are turned off by ideological-driven campaigns. Ultimately, they care about results. In 2008, President Obama ran as a liberal who was proposing a national health care plan and won in a landslide. Just two years later, Republicans ran on a limited-government conservative platform promising to repeal national health care and won in a landslide. Independents didn't undergo a massive ideological shift in just 24 months -- they just decided that Obama's policies were failing.
If Obama wins re-election, it will be because Americans determined that he showed just enough improvement to earn more time. But if Romney wins, it will mean they want a different course.
When George W. Bush was president, he followed the advice of the party's big-government wing when he backed the Medicare prescription drug plan and No Child Left Behind. Yet that didn't mitigate the political damage of the Iraq War or spare Republicans from crushing defeats in 2006 and 2008. The GOP didn't close the gap with Democrats on health care and education.
So, if Romney is elected president, he would be wise to tune out the advice of the David Brookses of the world and instead follow through on his promises to govern as a limited-government conservative. It's not just a matter of ideological rigidity but a recognition that at a time of economic stagnation and explosive debt, the nation's best chance for success lies with policies of lower taxes, fewer regulations and reduced spending.
Philip Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.