[By Robert Shrum -] There is a civil war gathering in the Republican Party. It looks more and more like a dispirited and disappointed collection of factions, preparing to lay blame for a lost presidential election and to do battle to shape a new direction for the Grand Old Party.
Last week the view hardened that the Republican nominee was in close to terminal trouble. Having lost the summer as he let the Obama campaign define him, having lost the conventions when he let Clint Eastwood step all over his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney spectacularly lost his head on Sept. 11 during the mob attack on U.S. diplomats in Egypt and Libya. He came across as a low-life opportunist rushing to exploit a national tragedy in order to score political points and then doubling down on this venal dumbness with a smirking and contentious press conference. This week he may well have finished the job, with video leaking of him referring to 47 percent of the electorate as government moochers.
Romney’s advisers have taken to bashing the press for covering the bad news, a near-certain sign of a losing campaign, as is the simultaneous effort to quarrel with the methodology of polls showing him trailing in the battleground states with almost no way of reaching 270 electoral votes. The surveys were largely in the field before Romney’s graceless and craven charge that the Obama administration sympathized with those who murdered the nation’s ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. More polls are on the way, and for Mitt the Knife, with his self-inflicted wounds, most of the numbers won’t be pretty.
John Heilemann, who knows a game change when he sees it, rendered a damning verdict in New York: “Romney…badly missed the mark.” Heilemann cited the array of GOP leaders, strategists, and commentators who declined to offer even faint support or instead outright rebuked their own candidate, on and off the record. He pointed to the broader narrative emerging in the media across the ideological spectrum: Romney is losing, knows he is losing, and is starting to panic...
...[If Romney does lose, this Republican civil war]—in an Obama second term, in 2016, and campaigns beyond—will be magnified or modulated by the course of the irrepressible conflict between the Jeb Bush Republicans and the Paul Ryan Republicans. The two men represent very different paths. Bush stands for a tempered conservatism; he understands the impending demographic doom of a reactionary, anti-Hispanic Republican Party. He’s writing a book on immigration; as he said this summer, “Don’t just…say immediately we must have controlled borders. Change the tone...I think we need a broader approach.” Ryan, on the other hand, champions a hard-line approach on immigration, along with virtual repeal of the New Deal and the social progress of the 1960s.
Bush’s attitude—I’ll borrow from his father and call it “a kinder, gentler” conservatism—could be broadly acceptable in the country, even if his brother George was all but anathema at the 2012 Republican convention. Ryan is out of step with the majority of Americans not only on immigration but on his budget plans and across a wide range of domestic policy. If Romney goes down, then Bush, the practical choice, and Ryan, likely to be lionized on the right, will be the 2016 front-runners for each faction of the GOP. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill will have to determine whether to be modestly practical—or relentlessly ideological.
Which way will this civil war go?
Undoubtedly, it will be bitter. The true believers will fulminate that they were tricked by the establishment into accepting Romney, John McCain, and free-spending, big-government fellow traveler George W. Bush. The Tea Partiers are a minority in America but almost certainly a majority in what could become a smaller and smaller Republican Party. And the GOP’s experience in California suggests that one beating, or even several, may not yield a GOP self-correction, but a dug-in revanchism. The state party’s response has been to lurch rightward. The result, as McCain’s chief 2008 strategist Steve Schmidt predicts, is that Republicans could soon become “the third party” in the nation’s largest state—behind Democrats and independent.
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