The Coming Conservative Civil War

Michael Tomasky, on the GOP's future:

Despite Bush's failures and the discrediting of conservative governance, there is every chance that the next Republican president, should the party's nominee prevail next year, will be just as conservative as Bush has been—perhaps even more so.

How could this be? The explanation is fairly simple. It has little to do with the out-of-touch politicians and conservative voters ... and reflects instead the central hard truth about the components of the Republican Party today. That is, the party is still in the hands of three main interests: neoconservatives; theo-conservatives, i.e., the groups of the religious right; and radical anti-taxers, clustered around such organizations as the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform. Each of these groups dominates party policy in its area of interest—the neocons in foreign policy, the theocons in social policy, and the anti-taxers on fiscal and regulatory issues. Each has led the Bush administration to undertake a high-profile failure .... And yet, so far as the internal dynamics of the Republican Party are concerned, they have been failures without serious consequence, because there are no strong countervailing Republican forces to present an opposite view or argue a different set of policies and principles.

From this perceptive beginning, Tomasky's essay goes a bit astray, I think, in its analysis of how and from whence reform - or at least ideological division - is likely to come to the Republican Party. He treats the alliance between the three interest groups listed above as a near-immutable fact of conservative politics, and argues that any realignment of the GOP must, perforce, be driven by Republicans who are "outside" the conservative movement. (He offers the names Chuck Hagel and Arnold Schwarzenegger as examples of the sort of politicians he has in mind.) Tomasky acknowledges the unlikelihood of this "revolt of the moderates" scenario; what he doesn't acknowledge, I think, is the growing likelihood of fissures within the conservative movement reshaping the ground of GOP politics.

It's true that the current conservative intelligentsia, forged in the crucible of Ronald Reagan's successes, is heavily invested in keeping the triple alliance intact - hence the Thompson bubble, the anti-Huckabee crusade, and the "rally round Romney" effect. And it's true, as well, that if the Republican Party recovers its majority in the next election the alliance will be considerably strengthened. But such a recovery is unlikely, and already, in the wake of just a single midterm-election debacle, it's obvious that the Norquistians and neocons and social conservatives aren't inevitable allies - that many tax-cutters and foreign-policy hawks, for instance, would happily screw over their Christian-Right allies to nominate Rudy Giuliani; or that many social conservatives don't give a tinker's dam what the Club for Growth thinks about Mike Huckabee's record. (So too with the neocon yearning for a McCain-Lieberman ticket, which would arguably represent a far more radical remaking of the GOP coalition than anything Chuck Hagel has to offer.)

The "movement" institutions, from the think tanks to talk radio, have resisted these fissiparous tendencies, and if Mitt Romney wins the nomination they'll be able to claim a temporary victory. But if the GOP continues to suffer at the polls, in '08 and beyond, the (right-of) center can't be expected to hold, and the result will be a struggle for power that's likely to leave the conservative movement changed, considerably, from the way that Tomasky finds it today. Like most such struggles, this civil war is beginning as a battle of the books - Gerson vs. Frum; Sager vs. Sam's Club, Norquist contra mundum - but it's likely to end with political trench warfare, and the birth of a very different GOP.