Ever since the internal Republican argument over best strategy for dealing with the October/November government shutdown and debt default crisis, it’s become fashionable in the MSM to talk of a “GOP Civil War.” It’s become an even more common theme after congressional Republicans cut a small appropriations deal with Democrats, with Speaker John Boehner loudly denouncing “outside” conservative groups (presumably like the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund) that have been trying to intimidate Members to defy the leadership on key votes.
But the idea that Republicans are engaged in a “struggle for the soul of the party” over fundamental ideology, and that “pragmatists” or “moderates” are winning the fight, is a gross overstatement at best, as I argued in a recent column for TPMCare:
[N]on-Republicans need to accept that the GOP knows exactly where its “soul” is located, and has an agenda that is impervious to significant change. What keeps getting described as a “struggle for the soul” of the party or a “civil war” is generally a fight over strategy, tactics and cosmetics, not ideology. For the foreseeable future, the conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, itself radicalized by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, is the prevailing reality of politics on the Right, and the GOP’s practical options are accordingly limited to one flavor or another of that persuasion.
Why is that the case? There are a lot of contributing factors, including the GOP’s shrinking but homogeneous “base,” the supremacy of conservative ideological media, and the rise of heavily funded political players determined to root out heresy. But the most important source of rigidity is conservative ideology itself, which does not aim (as do most European conservatives) at “moderating” or countering the bipartisan policies of the past or the Democratic policies of the present, but aspires to a counterrevolution that “restores” what conservatives regard as immutable principles of good government and even culture.
It its most explicit form, that of the “constitutional conservatives” who really dominate discussion within the GOP and who are likely to produce their next presidential nominee, the only genuinely “American” policies, designed by the Founders according to both natural and divine law, involve a free-market economy with extremely limited government and a traditionalist, largely patriarchal culture. These policies, buttressed by an increasingly chiliastic view of the status quo (e.g., the “Holocaust” of legalized abortion, and the social policy “tipping point” at which an elite-underclass alliance will destroy private property and liberty entirely), simply are not negotiable.
So what’s all the arguing about in GOP circles? It’s not matters of the “soul:”
[A]ll Republican elected officials and operatives do not share a full commitment to constitutional conservatism, and naturally wish “the base” and its activist groups and agitprop centers would tone down their ferocious views so that their bettors could enjoy the fruits of political power. But movement conservatism is the context within which they must operate. And so we see the Karl Roves and the Mitt Romneys who just want the Oval Office, and the business leaders who just want to make money with less state interference, constantly alternating between signing every right-wing litmus test in sight and urging their dogmatic allies to be a little more pragmatic in order to appeal to this or that allegedly detachable constituency of women or Latinos or millennials who don’t share the dreams of The Movement. This inherently unequal struggle is what passes for “civil war” within today’s GOP. It’s a million miles away from the genuinely fraught intraparty battles of yore between Rockefeller and Goldwater or Ford and Reagan.
Skirmishes and power struggles? Sure, today’s Republicans and entirely capable of that. But let’s stop calling it “civil war.”