The Coming Political Civil Wars

by Benjamin Domenech on 12:40 pm September 10, 2010

Rahm and Obama


Last week, The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein quoted Republican strategist Craig Shirley on an issue which is all the more significant as polls continue to indicate wide GOP electoral gains: the internal war over the future of the party which everyone expects to come after November.

“Assuming November goes as expected,” Shirley said, “the GOP will shortly thereafter descend into a brawl that will resemble the bar scene from ‘Star Wars’. One side will claim the election is a vindication of Bush’s big government conservatism while another side, the Reaganites, allied with the Tea Party movement, will more astutely see the results as a repudiation of both Bush’s and Obama’s embrace of big government.”

Shirley’s always been an astute observer of political trends, and those on the right would do well to observe two storylines playing out this week which provide lessons on what may come. The first is the current clash over the Republican primary in Delaware, and the second is the existing conflict over Rahm Emanuel’s leadership in Barack Obama’s White House.

The dominant battle on the right this year has been between grassroots fiscal conservatives, empowered by the Tea Party surge, and the existing Republican establishment. In the overwhelming number of primaries, the establishment has left the loser. In some cases, they’ve been shown the door politely. In others, such as Alaska — where sitting Senator Lisa Murkowski (who did not, on the surface, appear to be politically insane) is reportedly about to mount a statewide write-in campaign — they’ve been thrown out kicking and screaming. And adding insult to injury, in the case of Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, the establishment got to see their candidates of choice shed the Republican affiliation without a second’s thought.

This brings us to Delaware, where things get messier for the right. Some factions of the conservative grassroots have coalesced around Christine O’Donnell, who’s running against establishment Republican Mike Castle. But as opposed to situations where the divide is more clear-cut, grassroots conservatives seem genuinely divided about whether the Sarah Palin-endorsed O’Donnell deserves their support, even if they agree — despite the arguments of some — that Castle is a classic big government Republican.

Castle is hardly alone in this when you examine the list of Republican Senate nominees this cycle, which also includes Roy Blunt, Dan Coats, Mark Kirk and others who’ve clashed with conservatives in the past. This creates difficult tensions on the right between long-tenured conservative groups and Tea Partiers who are for the most part new to politics, and often have expectations which more pragmatic conservatives don’t view as politically practical. Many of these existing groups have gotten along rather well with the new activists despite their support for a long list of policies under George W. Bush — TARP topping that list — which the grassroots overwhelmingly rejects.

This circumstance has more than a little in common with the current “war among Dems,” as liberal Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent describes it. His view on the current discussion surrounding Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s expected departure sounds suprisingly similar to Shirley’s:

It’s the first hint of what’s to come after the Dems’ expected November bloodbath: An intra-party war among Dems over the real significance of the results, and over how Dems should recalibrate in response. And that battle isn’t going to be pretty.

Sargent goes on to urge the White House to ignore the “standard Beltway prism” and reject calls from the Beltway media — presumably not excepting his employer — to “dramatically scale back his ambitions, and engage in some genuine bipartisanship.” Yet those calls aren’t just being made externally, but from within, as when press secretary Robert Gibbs unloaded on the “professional left” last month, or in Center for American Progress and Obama transition-team leader John Podesta’s call for “soul-searching” and “changes” after November.

On both sides, we see similar elements and tensions at play which set the boundaries of the post-election conflict over direction and strategy. We see the active grassroots, which demands ideological purity and expects results; the ideologically motivated groups, which share many ideological goals with the grassroots, but think the grassroots demands too much, too fast from the political process; and the party establishment, which is profoundly distrusted on both sides. The major difference here is in the trendlines: the enthusiasm gap in favor of the right’s grassroots is at historic levels, and where the left’s base lacks the will or energy to reject their establishment at the moment in any form other than angry blogposts, the right’s establishment has been soundly chastised by an outpouring of unprecedented grassroots activity.

Of course if there’s one rule in politics, it’s that trendlines always continue, until they don’t. Simply because the right’s leadership has been punished for their profligate and irresponsible ways does not mean the lesson took. And simply because Obama’s Army turned out to be a glee club doesn’t mean those voters won’t come back in 2012. We’ll learn soon enough whether Shirley’s war or Sargent’s is the first to go nuclear.

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