Wednesday, September 22, 2010

GOP Civil War Delayed, Not Averted

NR scribe Jonah Goldberg thinks tales of the GOP Civil War have been greatly exaggerated.  His main argument is that everybody seems to be gravitating to the Tea Party side, and you can't have a civil war with only one side.  I beg to differ on the grounds that peculiar circumstances have allowed us to stave off some of the most heated battles of our looming intraparty combat.  Also, the electoral assumptions underlying each wing of the party are both wrong and incompatible with each other, and this incompatibility is destined to reemerge in the future.

It seems fate has intervened in strange ways to delay our squabbles.  When RINOs quit the Republican party, even the most amorally strategic among the party establishment can hardly support traitorous individuals.  Before Arlen Specter fled the GOP, the party leadership was once again gearing up to defeat Pat Toomey.  The battle would have been absolutely epic.  Pennsylvania might have gone Democrat for a generation as the GOP would have destroyed itself.  Even for some time after Specter defected, “the establishment” was reluctant to accept Toomey as their candidate.  RNC committeeman Bob Asher (a popular bogeyman for many base voters) commissioned a poll showing moderate former Governor Tom Ridge performing better than Toomey in a general election.  Party leadership was openly and frantically looking for a candidate “who can win”, with the obvious implication that Toomey couldn't.  It wasn't until the Ridge scenario failed to unfold that Ye Olde Establishment started softening their tone on Toomey.  Now, Toomey looks like a lock for the Senate seat, but rest assured that there is still quite a bit of bad blood in the party.

Similarly, the NRSC and “the establishment” were gearing up to promote Charlie Crist.  When Crist bolted exactly one year (to the day) after Specter, the Tea Party battle was won by default, not by defeat, and not by acquiescence.  Now Charlie the Independent is throwing a monkey wrench into the general election works and nobody likes him much.

Likewise, Lisa Murkowski ceased to be a sympathetic character when she launched her narcissistic write-in campaign.  At some point, even party bosses have to rally behind their candidates, even if only nominally.

Sharron Angle is still viewed skeptically by many Republicans.  And frankly, some of those concerns are real.  She's light years better than Harry Reid, and she may win, but she's hardly an ideal candidate.

Should we lose the NV, AK, or DE Senate races, plenty of the so-called ruling class will be around to say “I told you so.”  (In the case of Christine O'Donnell, I'll even put myself in that category, though I will gleefully eat crow if I am wrong.)

And it would be hard for Tea Partiers not to view the recent past as a civil war.  “The establishment” still picks candidates based on their perceived moderateness despite growing evidence that swing voters don’t care so much about moderateness per se.  Then, they market these candidates to the base as “electable”, which seems to be code for “not conservative”.  When the essential qualification for a candidate seems to be that the base will hate him, that’s a problem, and it’s not a problem that’s going away just because the country decided to have a wave election this year.

Whatever you call them, be it “Tea Partiers”, or “the base”, or “reform-minded” conservatives, they have their own idiosyncratic problems selecting candidates.  Let’s face it, Christine O’Donnell may vote exactly the way I’d like her to, but an ideological checklist does not a candidate make.  The base’s ideological intensity may wax and wane from election cycle to election cycle, but it will never go away entirely.  (Not that it should.)

Unless and until party leaders decide that a large degree of buy-in from the base is a necessary (if insufficient) precondition for electing its partisans regardless of the political environment, and start seeking candidates who can translate ideology into a sellable agenda rather than milquetoast moderates who don’t even agree with the party line, the GOP Civil War will only be delayed, but not averted.

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