Former U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina used to say, "There is no education in the second kick of a mule."
If polls continue current trends, Republicans are in for that second kick. That's a big "if," because independent "voter education" and "electioneering communication" committees, with their hundreds of millions in largely untraceable cash, are about to open sludge spigots on both sides and flood airwaves with the sort of bilge that, in more genteel times, prompted Aaron Burr to kill Alexander Hamilton.
If Mitt Romney loses, it might be a "Goldwater moment" for the Republicans. Blowing an election it should have won, the GOP might finally realize it has strayed far out of the mainstream and become a little too odd for the American public. The Democrats did that in 1972, going too far left, and except for the Carter administration — an anomaly caused by Watergate backlash — they paid for it for 20 years.
Perhaps realizing they had little chance of unhorsing Lyndon Johnson, Republicans allowed conservative zealots to nominate Barry Goldwater. He famously proclaimed that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" en route to a trouncing that left many Washington observers wondering if the party could even recover.
But Vietnam and urban rioting sparked a rapid Republican revival in the mid-term congressional elections and, by 1968, Richard Nixon narrowly won back the White House. But that was only because such party stalwarts as Sens. Everett Dirksen and Hugh Scott, and Representatives like Gerald Ford and John Rhodes, steered back to the center. Contenders in 1968 were Nixon, George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller — with Ronald Reagan riding in at convention time — none of whom could have been nominated in the prevailing climate of this year's GOP primaries.
By any conventional wisdom, the president should be staggering more than running for re-election. But he's leading a close race — especially in Virginia, Ohio and Florida, which will decide the winner.
At a news conference last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said unidentified Republican leaders have confided to him their plan to regain control from the Tea party wing if Romney loses. Getting information about Republicans from Chuck Schumer is like getting a temperance lecture from Lindsay Lohan, but he has a point.
"Half of them are hard-right tea party types and half of them are what I call mainstream conservatives," said Schumer. "If the president wins and we keep the Senate, those mainstream conservatives are going to be strengthened, and they're going to want to reach out and work with us because the embrace of the tea party that Mitt Romney has done — that is, in my view, dragging down all of their candidates — will have failed."
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, running for the Senate in Wisconsin, lamented recently that Romney is hurting "down-ticket" Republicans. There are no Romney coattails in Florida for Rep. Connie Mack in his bid to deny Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson a third term in Washington. GOP chances of taking over the Senate were hurt by Rep. Todd Akin's boneheaded remarks about how rape victims somehow "shut down" and don't get pregnant.
It's not that the very conservative GOP base doesn't think it's doing the right thing. Those voters consider compromise a bad word.
But if Republicans awaken Nov. 7, smarting from the second kick of the Democratic donkey, they might recall the words of another southern senator, Henry Clay, who insisted, "I'd rather be right than president."
They can be right — far, far right — and, like Clay, they'll keep on losing presidential elections. Ironically, Clay was known as the Great Compromiser.