Bai Warns GOP Not to be Too 'Virulently Anti-Washington and Anti-Obama' if They Want to Win in 2012

Some are calling the annual gathering of conservatives in D.C. known as CPAC the starting gun to the 2012 presidential race. But political reporter Matt Bai goes further in his "Political Times" column on Friday, freighting the three-day event with long-term electoral significance in "A Fork in Road to the White House."

If you just can't get enough of C-Span's daytime programming and are inclined to watch all of the speechifying at the annual gathering of conservative activists here this week, then keep in mind that these potential Republican presidential candidates face a choice in the earliest months of this nascent campaign.

They can either tell the rebellious, angry base of their party exactly what it craves to hear, or they can tell the base what they think it needs to hear in order to win.
Down one path lies affection and applause. Down the other, just maybe, lies the presidency.

After recapping the rise and fall of Howard Dean's presidential prospects in 2004, Bai put the pressure on Republicans that being "virulently anti-Washington" at CPAC might make you unelectable two years down the road. (Although it didn't seem to hurt the G.O.P. last November.)

The main lesson Republicans might take from this admittedly selective contrast is that chasing the applause of the faithful, even in a party that is more ideologically cohesive, generally gets you only so far. Aspirants at this week's forum can elevate themselves by playing, both rhetorically and substantively, to a base that's virulently anti-Washington and anti-Obama. But the wider primary electorate may judge such stridently partisan candidates to be unelectable.


The reality, though, is that Republicans remain discredited on the presidential level by the failures of the Bush years, and winning back the White House will most likely require more recasting of the party's traditional message than winning back the House did. "The hardest truth," says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, "is that we won in 2010 because independents behaved like Republicans. And we need to do that again in 2012."