No, there isn't a GOP civil war

It's the establishment, Fox News, Heritage, Rush and the Koch Bros, versus a few moderates. That's a mercy killing

Published June 8, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh                                                              (AP/Susan Walsh/Stacy Bengs/Reuters/Micah Walter)
John Boehner, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh (AP/Susan Walsh/Stacy Bengs/Reuters/Micah Walter)

It’s commonplace these days to suggest that a “civil war” has broken out in the Republican Party. The casus belli seems to consist mainly of two things: Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in last year’s presidential election, and the failure of Republicans over the last two electoral cycles to regain control of the United States Senate. It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that many Democrats attribute these events to the Republican Party’s increasingly shrill right-wing rejectionism, but apparently some Republicans believe the same thing.

About two months after Romney’s loss, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, channeling John Stuart Mill, admonished Republicans to stop being “the stupid party.” Karl Rove, whose bona fides as a political moderate had been fairly well hidden, announced that he would form a super-PAC dedicated to the proposition that only electable -- that is, mainstream -- candidates could emerge from Republican senatorial primaries. (No second amendment solutions, witches, or divinely ordained rapes need apply.) And John Huntsman, erstwhile Governor of Utah, Ambassador to China, and 2012 Republican Presidential candidate, went so far as to endorse the formation of a third party. “Someone’s going to step up at some point and say we’ve had enough of this,” he intoned. A third party might not win, but “[it] can certainly influence the debate.”

These assertions (and others like them) provoked the inevitable pushback from the party’s right-wing firebrands, and the civil war was joined. We are now asked to believe that a great struggle rages within the GOP, a close-run contest to determine its future direction and electoral destiny. A party divided between Cruz and Christie cannot stand.

A version of this narrative was recently provided by Pat Brady, the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. Appearing on the June 1 broadcast of MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki,” Brady agreed with his host's claim that “the Republican base” was a problem for his party. He conjured a vision of “establishment people” girding their loins -- or whatever it is moderate Republicans gird -- in order to wrest control of the nominating process from that same problematic base. Control having been won, The Establishment would proceed to anoint “good candidates” such as Governor Christie and (inexplicably, at least for me) Scott Walker, the union-busting, Koch brothers-genuflecting governor of Wisconsin.

But Brady didn’t think these struggles signaled anything peculiar at work in the Republican Party. “It’s a natural process in a party that had its brains kicked in,” he said, comparing it to the situation of Democrats after the 1988 election. Republicans, he continued, are now looking for their version of “a Bill Clinton-like leader,” just as Democrats did then.

This new conventional wisdom has its quixotic features. One of them is the notion that there is a Republican “establishment” that does not include right-wing organs such as Fox News and the Heritage Foundation, or far-right figures such as Rush Limbaugh and the Koch Brothers. Another is that any struggle between these forces and those who favor moderation will be competitive enough to qualify as a civil war. Given the relative strength of the two factions these days, it might more accurately be described as a mercy killing. And when that mercy is dispensed, Rush & Co. won’t be on the receiving end.

But the really weird thing is the attempt to model 2012 on 1988 -- to argue that the process Republicans are presently engaged in is analogous to the self-criticism Democrats undertook after George H.W. Bush’s victory over Michael Dukakis. In saying this, I don’t have in mind the point -- already made by many others -- that Democrats realized they had to change policies whereas Republicans apparently think they simply need a new marketing strategy. (Democrats searched their souls; Republicans are searching their rolodexes.) That’s true enough, but the analogy breaks down in an even more fundamental way: The Right never accepted Mitt Romney as its representative and hence does not accept his repudiation as its own. Mitt was not the Right's Michael Dukakis, so its 1988 moment has yet to arrive.

Dukakis’s relation to liberalism was always more nuanced than Lee Atwater, Bush senior's mud- and guitar-slinging campaign manager, wanted us to believe. In Pledging Allegiance, his brilliant history of the 1988 campaign, Sidney Blumenthal persuasively depicts Dukakis as a late 20th-century avatar of the more austere aspects of the Progressive movement, a good government grind more interested in new ways to make government efficient than in New Deals. His brand of "Yankee reformism" aligned him with Democrats such as Paul Tsongas and Gary Hart, also exponents of the post-Reagan experiment in self-chastisement known as "neo-liberalism."

Still, liberals accepted Dukakis as one of their own, prefixes notwithstanding. Didn't his campaign, after all, come down to the claim that he could make liberalism work? And there was no denying that the electorate took him to be a liberal. If they didn't before Lee Atwater got to work, they certainly did afterwards. Unfortunately for Democrats, they also accepted Atwater's definition of liberalism as a riot of murderer-furloughing, ACLU-card-carrying, Pledge-of-Allegiance-vetoing fecklessness. Dukakis won 10 states. It was a debacle, and liberals had their fingerprints all over it. No Democrat woke up on November 9, 1988, saying "If we had just nominated a real liberal, we would have won!" Instead the party deepened its self-scrutiny and four years later nominated Bill Clinton, a Southern governor more famous for executing murderers than furloughing them.

Almost no element of this story applies to the Right's relationship with Mitt Romney. The tortured Republican primary process, in which various far-right figures traded favorite son (or, in Michele Bachmann's case, daughter) status until self-immolating, was practically an "Anyone But Mitt" roadshow. Conservative punditry disowned him. As early as 2011, Rush Limbaugh announced that "Romney is not a conservative." James Dobson, the evangelical who founded Focus on the Family, now the institutional voice of the Christian Right, wrote a few months before the election that "I sense... [Romney] is not a true conservative on many issues." Similar sentiments poured from the mouths and laptops of a broad swath of the right-wing commentariat. A consensus was easily detectable: Romney might be preferable to Obama -- and really, who wouldn't be? -- but he was far from a true believer, a slippery pragmatist with suspicious tendencies toward moderation. As a Republican nominee, he was the political equivalent of kissing your sister.

So how did the Right react after the 2012 election? "Governor Romney is a good person, a great business leader," The American Spectator said mournfully. "But, alas, he is also a moderate Republican." The magazine then went on to advise Republicans to stop nominating candidates "for whom conservatism is a second language" because "they lose."

And there you have it. The Right never accepted Romney as its leader, so it refused to accept his loss as a defeat for its cause. If anything, it was a kind of victory, because it brought the Republican Party face to face with an ineluctable truth: moderates always lose, real conservatives always win. The voters didn't reject conservatism; they rejected a pallid "moderate" pastiche. They wanted a choice, not an echo.

Pat Brady and those like him ignore these facts at their own peril. One can't help but sympathize with their entirely natural wish that their party awaken from its fever dream, but if they really think that process is underway now they're the ones who are dreaming. What's much more likely is that the Right's grip on the Republican Party will not relax until it nominates one of its own for president, a candidacy that will almost certainly engender an electoral holocaust of Goldwateresque proportions. Only then will the moderates in the party have enough leverage to insist on a genuine program of self-criticism, a program that must precede any successful effort to reclaim their party. The Right may not have its 1988 moment until 2016, but -- sooner or later -- it's coming.

By Kim Messick

Kim Messick’s work has appeared in Salon, Real Clear Politics, Huffington Post, and other venues. He’s writing a book about the liberalism of Lionel Trilling and Bernard Williams.

MORE FROM Kim Messick