By Bill Schneider
Nov 26 (Reuters) - Here's what's supposed to be happening: After losing two presidential elections, Republicans are supposed to be re-evaluating what their party stands for. Are they out of line with mainstream America? Does the party need to change?
The answer is yes. So the party moves to the center and searches for candidates with broader appeal. Republicans don't need another spectacle like the 2012 primaries, where the contenders ran the gamut from a panderer to the right (Mitt Romney), to the far right (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum), to the extreme right (Representative Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry), to the lunatic fringe (Herman Cain, Representative Ron Paul).
There was one moderate in 2012 - Jon Huntsman. Huntsman didn't make it past New Hampshire, where he came in first among the tiny number of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary.
After conservative Senator Barry M. Goldwater lost in 1964, Republicans turned to Richard M. Nixon. Nixon had been defeated for president in 1960 and then for governor of California in 1962. He was politically dead - dead as Jacob Marley. But Republicans resurrected Nixon and dusted off his centrist credentials. Nixon won.
After liberal Senator George McGovern lost in 1972, Democrats turned to Jimmy Carter, a moderate Southern governor who had nominated Scoop Jackson for president at the 1972 Democratic convention. Carter won. In 1992, after three losses in a row, Democrats came up with another moderate Southern governor, Bill Clinton, who had been chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Clinton won.
Call it the centrist imperative. It's supposed to be happening to Republicans now. But it's not. Instead, Republicans are blaming everything for their loss except what they stand for. Romney believes he lost because President Barack Obama handed out "gifts" to minorities.
Most Republicans believe they lost because they had a bad candidate. Epically bad. The worst since, well, the last two candidates from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis and Senator John Kerry. They believe Romney got smeared by Democrats and didn't fight back. As conservative activist Grover Norquist put it, "The president won a mandate not to be Romney for the next four years because Romney gives people cancer and is a bad person and is mean to dogs."
Some Republicans are simply in denial. "I don't think for a second Republicans ought to change what we believe and what we stand for," the former executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party told The New York Times. "I do think we could do a more effective job of communicating that."
It's a popular theme among Republicans. There's nothing wrong with their message. There's something wrong with their messaging.
And their messenger. Conservatives have abandoned Romney as a shape-shifter who was never really one of them. "What we got was a weak moderate candidate handpicked by the Beltway elites and country club establishment wing of the Republican Party," the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots told a news conference.
Why don't Republicans get it? Because they are actually one stage beyond the centrist imperative. The next stage is the centrist collapse.
The polarization of our politics has its roots in the centrist collapse. Republicans saw the center collapse under Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon was a "Great Society Republican" who started affirmative action and environmental protection programs. Conservatives hated the Nixon-Ford-Henry Kissinger foreign policy of detente with communism. The failure of Nixon and Ford drove Republicans to the right and into the arms of Ronald Reagan, who led Republicans to three victories in a row.
Similarly, Democrats saw the center collapse under Carter. After Carter's failure, Democrats began moving to the left. Like the Goldwater forces in the Republican Party, the McGovern forces lost the election and ultimately took over the party.
A lot of Republicans regard George W. Bush as a failed centrist. Conservatives call Bush a "big government Republican" because he allowed increases in spending and deficits (for two wars, a new entitlement program and a government bailout). After Bush and Senator John McCain and Romney, conservatives are saying, "Enough moderation."
They believe voters are hungering for the real thing. Conservatives have taken refuge in the South, where Republicans enjoy total domination. In Bibb County, Alabama, a dead Republican defeated a living Democrat for county commissioner.
The big shock to Republicans was not just that Romney lost. It was also that they failed to make gains in the Senate, which they had counted on taking over. The party threw away likely Senate victories in Missouri and Indiana this year by nominating extreme candidates. Just like they did in 2010 in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado.
The fact is, the Republican message could not be any clearer. Voters know what the party stands for. That's the problem.
Republicans first step is to learn two basic things. One is not to stigmatize people like immigrants and gays and single mothers. The other is not to threaten to shred the safety net. That's not centrism. That's common sensism.