The Phony War Intensifies

For the cynical-minded, today’s front-line reporting from the Struggle for the Soul of the Republican Party can induce bitter laughter: in response to “establishment” talk that Republicans need a clearer and more systematic conservative message that is marketed un-stupidly, some self-conscious conservative activists are “pushing back,” per a deeply confused WaPo piece from Paul Kane and Rosalind S. Helderman:

After nearly two weeks of listening to GOP officials pledge to assert greater control over the party and its most strident voices in the wake of Romney’s loss, grass-roots activists have begun to fight back, saying that they are not to blame for the party’s losses in November.

“The moderates have had their candidate in 2008 and they had their candidate in 2012. And they got crushed in both elections. Now they tell us we have to keep moderating. If we do that, will we win?” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader. Vander Plaats is an influential Christian conservative who opposed Romney in the Iowa caucuses 10 months ago and opposed Sen. John McCain’s candidacy four years ago.

So now the shallow trenches have been dug for the phony war:

The conservative backlash sets up an internal fight for the direction of the Republican Party, as many top leaders in Washington have proposed moderating their views on citizenship for illegal immigrants, to appeal to Latino voters. In addition, many top GOP officials have called for softening the party’s rhetoric on social issues, following the embarrassing showing by Senate candidates who were routed after publicly musing about denying abortion services to women who had been raped.

Yes, years from now conservatives will sit around campfires and sing songs about the legendary internecine battles of late 2012, when father fought son and brother fought brother across a chasm of controversy as to whether 98% or 99% of abortions should be banned; whether undocumented workers should be branded and utilized as “guest workers,” loaded onto cattle cars and shipped home, or simply immiserated; whether the New Deal/Great Society programs should be abolished in order to cut upper-income taxes or abolished in order to boost Pentagon spending. There’s also a vicious, take-no-prisons fight over how quickly to return the role of the federal government in the economy to its pre-1930s role as handmaiden to industry. Blood will flow in the streets as Republicans battle over how to deal with health care after Obamacare is repealed and 50 million or people lose health insurance. Tax credits and risk pools or just “personal responsibility?”

Look, there could be a true “period for reflection” and “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party;” the list of heterodox conservative thinkers that David Brooks trots out in his latest New York Times column would provide a good starting point. The trouble is none of these people have a bit of influence over Republican political actors, particularly when they are heterodox. The real debate is between people like Reince Priebus and John Cornyn and people like Bob Vander Plaats and Ted Cruz. They are entitled to fight with each other all day long about how many zygotes could fit on the head of a pin, and how deeply the 47% have been corrupted into permanent serfdom. But the MSM really, really needs to show it understands this isn’t a fight about any kind of fundamentals.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.