09/17/2012 06:48 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

If Romney Loses

What a donnybrook this is going to be.

The next 52 days until the election? Nope. What will follow if Mitt Romney loses.

Rush Limbaugh raised the issue Monday. He was responding to comments made on what he called "PMSNBC" by Chris Matthews suggesting that an Obama victory would be the end of conservative control of the Republican Party. Limbaugh had his own assessment:

There's going to be a third party that's going to be orientated toward conservatism -- or Rand Paul thinks libertarianism. If Obama wins, the Republican Party will try to maneuver things so conservatives get blamed. The only problem is right now, Romney is not running a conservative campaign.

"But they're going to set it up, 'Well, the right sat home, the right made Romney be other than he is.' They'll try to deflect the blame, but they got who they want," he said of the Republican Party's selection of Mitt Romney for president.

I was keenly interested in Limbaugh's comments because I appeared opposite Matthews when he made the statement that got Rush's attention, only I never had the chance to respond on TV. Here is what Matthews said in the segment hosted by Tamron Hall:

The best way to beat the right wing is to beat them. If [Obama] beats them in this election, they're finished. And I think that's the point. The moderates will come back. Jeb Bush will come back. The people like Chris Christie will come back. The moderates will retake the party. If you smash the right.

Matthews went on to say that the "Mitch McConnells will shut up for a while" if Romney loses.

While I agree with both commentators that there will be quite a crossroads within the GOP should Romney lose, I disagree with both Limbaugh and Matthews as to how events will play out. I suspect the divide within the party won't be resolved until voters get a say in the 2016 primaries.

Rush is wrong when he says that "Romney is not running a conservative campaign." Truth is, there has been none of the anticipated tack toward the center that would make Romney a more attractive candidate to independents. His comments in the aftermath of the death of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, are illustrative of where he has sought his appeal -- from the far right.

Romney's unfounded statement that Obama had sympathized with the insurgents and apologized for the United States were a hat tip to the Internet lore that portrays the president as something other than American. It fits the fictitious narrative you get in depictions such as Dinesh D'Souza's movie 2016 that Obama is furthering European socialist goals while president and that he is embarrassed about his country, hence the need to apologize.

Trouble is, there are no facts to justify those statements. The man who once governed Massachusetts as a pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-health care reformer has run as a "severe" conservative and checked absolutely all the boxes required of him in the conservative litmus tests.

Matthews is mistaken when he thinks that a Romney defeat will mute McConnell, the senator who famously said that his "single most important goal" was to defeat Obama. The opposite is more likely. Should Romney lose, McConnell will no more shut up than Rick Santorum. As for the former senator from Pennsylvania, get ready for a giant "I told you so," given that he famously said that Romney "was the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama."

And there is no way that the likes of Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin will go silently into that night. To the contrary, their conclusion will be that Romney was a moderate in conservative clothing and that only a "real" conservative can assume the mantle of the party of Reagan, overlooking of course that Ronald Reagan would probably have had his bona fides questioned in this climate. Who said that? Jeb Bush. ("Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad -- they would have a hard time if you define the Republican party -- and I don't -- as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground.")

While it's true that Jeb Bush has suggested that the party grow the tent and that Chris Christie has some moderate tendencies (he's embraced a clear path to citizenship, has supported some gun-control laws, and has said that "climate change is real") there is no evidence that either is prepared to engage in a confrontation with the right over control of the party. Christie did once say, "I'm tired of dealing with the crazies," after being criticized for appointing to the state bench a Muslim lawyer who once represented a terror suspect. But Christie's full-throated support of the conservative incarnation of Romney casts doubt on his willingness to engage the fringe within his party.

No back-room maneuvering is going to solve this crisis. There are too many egos unwilling to get out of the way. Wholesale change will come only at the ballot box, which seems unlikely in the near future given the exodus of moderates from the party. What motivation do they have to return? Of course, I might be wrong. And if Matthews is right about Jeb Bush emerging in the GOP, you know what that could mean?

Bush v. Clinton in 2016!

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.