A Republican Civil War: Unlikely Or Inevitable?

The Republican Party is united on the issues in a way it hasn't been in a long time, but personalities threaten to tear the fragile coalition apart.

Slate’s David Weigel argues that those hoping for a GOP crackup after last month’s legislative victories could be waiting for a long time:

In order for there to be a real split in the new GOP, something bigger than a fight for attention or some backbone-stiffening, there needs to be a disagreement on some issue big enough to distract the party from its mission. It needs to be a big enough distraction to make Republicans, Tea Partiers, libertarians, evangelicals, Bo Derek, and everyone else temporarily pause the war on Barack Obama’s policies.

So far, nothing is playing that role. GOProud’s nagging approach to the what-should-Republicans-do debate doesn’t actually demand that the party change its position on any policies. (GOProud supports “don’t ask, don’t tell” reform, for example, but that’s not on the Republican agenda if it isn’t passed in the lame-duck session.) Instead, it’s gone after the groups that are protesting a GOProud presence at CPAC 2011, the annual conservative conference, by accusing them of being insufficiently conservative on immigration, Trojan Horsers who want amnesty.

Of course, all of these debates are happening in what’s supposed to be the GOP’s honeymoon period. Is it possible that, in 2011, some social issue bubbles up out of nowhere, or some Republican introduces social legislation that offends those noble swing voters who gave the GOP a chance this time? Sure, that’s sort of what happened with the Terri Schiavo mess. And that’s mostly what the economic conservatives are worried about.

But a real fight between the GOP and its new members? A split on foreign policy? A split on social issues? That’s not going to happen as long as Barack Obama is president. The Tea Party isn’t presenting some infinite challenge that threatens what the GOP establishment does. The Tea Party won its battles with Republicans because its beliefs and priorities were the ones most Republicans had in the first place.

This is in many ways the same position the GOP was in after the 1994 elections. While there were many factions in the new Republican majority, they were united in opposition to President Clinton and in the goal of defeating him in 1996. It wasn’t until after the `96 election, and the disaster that was the Bob Dole campaign, that the fissures in the GOP began to reassert themselves. I suspect that this phenomenon will be even more pronounced this time around as opposition to Obama becomes the central theme of the conservative talking heads on Fox News Channel and talk radio, but there’s another factor in play that could end up setting off a Republican civil war sooner rather than later.

Unlike 1996 when Bob Dole was the clear heir apparent for the GOP nomination, the race for the 2012 Presidential nomination is as wide-open as the 2008 race was, perhaps even more so. The fight for the nomination, which in some sense has already begun in earnest, is likely to be long and potentially divisive, especially if a certain former Governor from a certain northern state throws her hat in the ring:

Based on the way the Delaware Senate Primary worked itself out, one can easily see Palin and her supporters taking up the claim that those who oppose her are “RINOs,” or that they’re opposing her simply because she’s a woman. It’s a bogus charge, but it proved to be a fairly effective weapon for O’Donnell supporters to shut down dissenting voices who were pointing out, correctly, that she had no realistic chance of winning or that her past was questionable at best. Expect the same kind of attacks from Palin supporters against Republicans who dare to oppose a Palin Presidential run in 2012.

And that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the month since the midterm elections. Given her divisiveness in the nation as a whole, one could easily see a Palin candidacy being the spark for an internal fight in the GOP that leaves far more bad blood behind  than, say, a fight over Mitch Daniels v. Mitt Romney might. So, while Republicans are likely to stay united on issues, the disputes that are already starting to develop between supporters and critics of Sarah Palin could lead the GOP to spend 2012 snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Palin is already the touchstone, with Republicans being forced to choose sides.

  2. Herb says:

    “GOOOOOOOOOOOO SARA!!!!!!!!!!!1”

    So excited he lost track of the shift key for a second.

    I used to get like that about the Broncos, but then their gimmicky coach, their crappy play, and their poor record deflated all my hopes for a playoff appearance, much less a shot at the championship.

  3. ponce says:

    Looking back at the 2008 Republican primary, all(?) of the candidates had announced by March of 2006 and most did it in February.
    Unless there’s a scenario where Palin could hold off announcing until late next year and still win…we’ll know soon enough whether she’s running or not.

  4. Terrye says:

    I am hoping that a lot of this will have resolved itself by then. One way or the other.