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A phony Republican Civil War

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(Bloomberg View) — The prominent conservatives who met last week to try to ensure that Republicans will be on board with movement conservative orthodoxy in 2014 and 2016 published a platform full of platitudes and generalizations.

As Dave Weigel, who got to this first, said, their proposed agenda contained “nothing that any national Republican isn’t on board with, nothing that is hard for a moderate to seize onto.”

Ed Kilgore has been doing a terrific job of tracking how this would-be debate played out in the primary elections this spring. The bottom line is that in this supposed fierce battle between “establishment” and Tea Party Republicans, candidates from all factions are supporting the same agenda.

Party schisms are just about the most important events that can happen in a democracy. The Democratic break in the 1940s and 1950s resulted in the end of Jim Crow. The split among Republicans between conservatives and progressives in the early part of the 20th century had huge consequences, as did the later Republican division between conservatives and moderates, the Taft-Eisenhower split. And that’s without getting into the crackup of the Democrats in the 1850s.

What each of those schisms had in common was real fights over policy. They were all based on serious intraparty cleavages that could not be papered over, and that ultimately no one even wanted to paper over, whether it was prohibition for 1920s Democrats or civil rights for 1940s and 1950s Democrats.

In other words, these conflicts were far more consequential than is the competition among today’s Republicans to show how much they hate Obamacare. Cue “Life of Brian”:

Reg: “Listen, if you wanted to join the PFJ, you’d have to really hate the Romans.” Brian: “I do!” Reg: “Oh yeah? How much?” Brian: “A lot!” Reg: “Alright, you’re in.”

What’s amazing about the “civil war” supposedly gripping Republicans these days is the apparent non-existence of any serious cleavage. And not just on policy. Practically no one in the party admits to being part of the dreaded “establishment,” let alone claim to be a moderate.

The rift is driven by people struggling to find ever more elusive ways to distinguish themselves as “real conservatives.” That is, as separate from all those other people who call themselves conservatives and hold the same positions and vote in almost exactly the same way, but who are designated “RINOs.” Paul Waldman puts it well: “You’re supposed to pose as a rebel, so independent-minded and contemptuous of existing institutions that you can’t even bring yourself to support anybody to lead you.”

Where does this all go? I have no idea. Perhaps Republicans will eventually elect a president and everyone will fall in line. Perhaps another presidential election defeat, or maybe two, will snap them out of it. Or perhaps the radicals win, and the Louis Gohmerts and Ted Cruzes are swallowed by another group of even more nonsensical radicals until every sensible person has been chased from the party, giving the Democrats a real majority.

The latter seems unlikely, but then again it was unlikely that Republicans would shut down the government knowing full well that it would backfire on them. And yet, they couldn’t stop themselves. Perhaps they never will be able to.

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