The coming war within the Republican Party

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles on September 17, 2012.

This post originally appeared on Slate.

(CBS News) After the presidential campaign ends, think tanks and universities will invite wise partisans to explain why their party lost and how to rebound. Some Republicans are already working on their talking points.

A pattern has emerged in my conversations with GOP campaign veterans over the last 10 days. Here is how these conversations usually go. First, these Republicans defend Romney. Then, they point out that it's hard to beat an incumbent president, sigh that the press is in the tank for Obama, and point out that the polls are a lot closer than the chattering class makes it seem (Please see Gallup: Obama's bounce is gone). Romney might still pull it out, they say, if he can just connect with voters or tell a better story. But then the conversation inevitably turns to the "big talk" that's going to come after the election: What's the Republican Party going to look like in the future? If Romney loses, the party's leaders must change their ways to be in sync with the modern electorate.

Caveat: If the opinions of political operatives and campaign partisans were always solid, Chris Christie would have run for president, Hillary Clinton would have traded jobs with Joe Biden, and the GOP would have had a brokered convention. So, this preliminary conversation about the fissures in the Republican Party might be just the idle chatter of people not intimately involved in the Romney game plan. But there comes a moment when these conversations break out into the open and then a campaign can't ignore them. The locker-room chatter runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. It's harder for a candidate to win an election when, months ahead of time, his party's smart people are having a public discussion about the post-election period in which he has already lost.

In addition to my reporting, there are now some public signs. David Brooks offered a withering critique of Romney in a column today that ends with what feels like a post-election analysis seven weeks before the election. "He's a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not--some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He's running a depressingly inept presidential campaign." In a piece for Politico today, the former GOP chairman Haley Barbour already sounds like he's offering post-game analysis. "In the future, and not distant future, Republicans have to come to grips with the right policy on immigration," says Barbour. Bill Kristol also appears to be in the mood to offer final words on this campaign: "Has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country?" (He is apparently not yet buying the Romney campaign's move to specificity).

Why on earth would any self-respecting Republican rush to make definitive claims about Romney when a president with a weak record can still be turned out of office? Presumably the people making these claims care about the future of the conservative movement. There is a first-mover's advantage to getting your theory out fast so that your ideas can help shape the post-election debate. If you want your theory to become conventional wisdom, act now! But anyone who wants to stand up and make a bold claim has to engage in a balancing act: You want to be quick enough to have the stage to yourself, but not too quick so that it looks like you are being opportunistic. It's like criticizing a sitting president too early during a foreign-policy crisis: criticizing your own party should start at the election's edge.

You might be saying, these columnists don't speak for me. You might call them Washington conservatives and point out, as several people not stricken with Potomac Fever have said to me, that this tentative heading for the exits is symptomatic of the timidity that has caused confusion in the party. That feeling is honest and part of the debate. It's likely to make you want to speak up to claim your view of where the conservative movement should go next before these insiders get too many free minutes at the microphone. That is how the debate gets started. Meanwhile, the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is forgotten, which isn't good news for Gov. Romney.

The rough contours of this conversation about the party's future center on whether the party's tone on immigration and the role of government have gotten out of sync with the electorate. Grassroots activists will argue that Romney was a compromise candidate who could never articulate the anti-government case for freedom and that's why he's having a hard time. (That is the argument Rick Santorum made during the primaries.) Others will argue that the Tea Party pushed Romney--as it will every candidate--into ever-more absolutist positions on immigration and the role of government.