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The Debt Deal Makes It Nearly Impossible for the GOP Nominee to Pivot to the Center

With the passage of the debt limit increase package this week, many political activists and observers have undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief and either headed off on vacation or refocused their attention on the “normal” business of American politics. Certainly the Republican candidates and campaigns have to be happy to dispose of the daily pressure of monitoring and commenting (or, in the case of Mitt Romney, avoiding comments) on the “debt crisis,” without getting crossways with the hyper-conservative activists that will dominate the early stages of the nominating contest, or saying anything that could fatally compromise them in a general election.

But they’d all better get used to it. The big debt limit vote in Congress, it is increasingly obvious, is just an appetizer for the divisive, voter-alienating struggles it has built into the schedule at key points during the 2012 presidential campaign, making an eventual GOP presidential nominee’s efforts to “pivot to the center” an athletic feat, at best. And as Tea Party activists and other conservatives have made clear in their reactions to the deal just signed, their efforts to force everyone in the GOP to join in future hostage-taking exercises aimed at middle-class entitlements and other targets beloved of voters have just begun.

Indeed, this week’s agreement didn’t really kick the can that far down the road. In September, after the field has finally filled out and been winnowed in Ames, congressional conservatives will be engaged in a savage fight to cut domestic appropriations—complete, no doubt, with government shutdown threats—below the levels spelled out in the debt limit deal. Another provision of the deal requires that when the current “temporary” debt limit is reached, probably around the end of September, the president must request another increase in the limit, which will lead to a “disapproval” vote in Congress and, if it passes, a presidential veto and a veto override vote (all just Kabuki theater, but a noisy and divisive exercise nonetheless). Soon after that, an even bigger battle over the “debt committee” recommendations, and the fallback automatic spending cuts that will be triggered in their stead, will break out, culminating in December when the candidates competing in the early primary states will be in a full-on teeth-grinding frenzy for votes. Both these fights will inevitably involve trade-offs—between entitlement cuts, defense spending cuts, and tax increases—that divide the GOP and the country, and they will force candidates to choose again and again between the views of Tea Party activists—including early primary-state Big Dogs like Jim DeMint—and the general public.

And that hardly ends the gauntlet of fiscal litmus tests. As TNR’s Jonathan Cohn explained yesterday, the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts, and the next anticipated deadline for yet another debt increase, will coincide at the end of 2012, casting a long shadow over the presidential campaign. Budget guru Stan Collender has summed it up: “[I]t’s absolutely certain Congress and the president, the House and Senate, and Democrats and Republicans will all be fighting constantly over the budget during the next 18 months.”

This rocky road ahead raises a very fundamental question about the long-range strategy of the Republican presidential nominee. It is often asserted that presidential candidates “play to the base” during contested primary contests and then “pivot to the center” once they are playing on the expanded field of a general election. This desideratum is more important these days for Republicans than for Democrats, since the GOP is without a doubt the more ideological of the two major parties (consider the relative power of Blue Dogs and the hunted-to-extinction RINOs, or the eagerness of Republicans to call themselves “conservatives” or even “true conservatives,” as contrasted with the resistance of many Democrats to labels such as “liberal” or even “progressive”). 

The “pivot to the center” is a lot easier said than done. It was certainly a major problem for John McCain in 2008, who had to repudiate much of his “maverick” record during the primaries and then struggled to recapture it, with conservatives thwarting his desire for a pro-choice running-mate and disrupting his general election rallies with complaints that he wasn’t talking constantly about ACORN and Jeremiah Wright. 

How much harder might the “pivot to the center” be for the 2012 GOP nominee, who will head up a party convinced its recommitment to conservative principles and its partisan militancy won the 2010 midterm elections and now has Democrats on the run? Moreover, in a year where the last cycle’s “true conservative” candidate Mitt Romney has moved significantly to the right but is now considered dangerously moderate, the distance such a “pivot” would have to span appears daunting, if not downright impossible. 

Meanwhile, Barack Obama (barring some truly shocking turn of events) will not only have the luxury of avoiding a base-tending primary challenge, but will have pursued what amounts to a general election strategy for the entire span of his presidency. From all appearances, Team Obama has long concluded its ace-in-the-hole for 2012 will be its ability to frighten both persuadable swing voters and unhappy progressives with the specter of what an extremist Republican government might do. Conservatives in Congress and in the early primary states are certainly doing everything they can to help Democrats paint devil horns on their eventual nominee.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.