In the days to come, we’ll be witness to bitter and increasingly personal battles fought out in Washington over issues that range from Hurricane Sandy relief efforts to immigration reform and the debt ceiling.
And of course, that’s just among the Republicans. Deep divides are already apparent within the party on how to approach those and other issues, and it’s hard to envision how those differences will be resolved any time soon. To the contrary, in the frustration of defeat, many in the party have begun to turn on each other, raising the very real specter of a GOP civil war.
In the words of Josh Kraushaar, executive editor of National Journal, “I’ve long been skeptical about the feasibility of a third party, but I’m beginning to entertain the possibility that the GOP could become split apart as these policy debates come to the fore…. Is it that much of a stretch to believe that by 2016, the grassroots base will have taken control of the Republican Party, and the establishment will be looking to bolt?”
I know what he means, because I’ve been having similar thoughts myself. Talk of third parties has always been silly in my experience, largely because we operate in a political environment in which two parties are the stable status quo. That said, I also can’t recall seeing a party so at odds with itself as the modern GOP.
Senate Republicans are sniping at their counterparts in the House, who in turn dismiss GOP senators as enemy collaborators. Northeast Republicans publicly accuse the party of caring only about the South, and half the party lives in fear of being labeled RINO by the other half. The party’s professionals blame its predicament on a lack of realism within the GOP media, while the conservative entertainment industry attacks party professionals as profiteers who lack a true commitment to the cause.
Part of the internal rancor can be explained by the nature of the GOP in recent years. When you turn inflexibility into a core party value, you make it all but impossible to make adjustments when the wind changes.
In addition, GOP leadership adopted a strategy of turning Barack Obama into the personification of all that its base feared and opposed, inspiring its followers with the belief that by defeating Obama they would “take back the country.” When it turned out that a majority of their fellow Americans did not want the country “taken back,” the revelation left many in the GOP stunned, uncertain of what to do next.
Perhaps most important, the GOP has functioned more as a fervent social crusade than as a political party. Certain of victory and fired by righteousness, important elements of the national party have shown little capacity for handling defeat. They have no ability to think in terms of minimizing loss and living to fight another day. They fail to understand that retreat need not mean surrender, and that compromise is not capitulation. And that lack of strategic vision threatens to turn retreat into a rout.
The wiser among them understand that, yet they also seem helpless to prevent it. In an op-ed back in December in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove in effect begged Barack Obama to save the GOP from a civil war with itself, warning the president that Republican infighting could cause “significant collateral damage” to his second term.
More recently, columnist Charles Krauthammer took a similar tack, accusing Obama of a plot “to fracture and basically shatter the Republican opposition … His objective from the very beginning was to break the will of the Republicans in the House, and to create an internal civil war. And he’s done that.”
I suspect it’s true that Obama is less than heart-broken to see his opponents in such disarray. It’s also true that he seems intent on making the most of the opportunity, forcing the Republicans to make a series of difficult, divisive policy and strategic decisions at a time when they are ill-prepared to do so.
But I have to say, it’s darkly humorous to see a take-no-prisoner political warrior such as Rove try to make the case for mercy. That is perhaps the most telling measure of the GOP’s predicament.
– Jay Bookman