What’s going to happen to the Republican Party?

In 2008 a friend of mine had an interesting theory. He thought that the religious right was going to try and take control of the Republican Party, and the party would end up splitting into a moderate wing and a highly conservative wing.

At the time, I thought he was crazy. The 2008 election was ramping up, and Republicans were clearly gathering around John McCain as their nominee. I also couldn’t believe that a party as regimented, controlled, and on message as the Republicans would allow themselves to get fractured in such a fundamental way. (Plus the idea of a serious 3rd party in American politics hasn’t been a reality in a century).

Looking back at the past week and watching the Republican Party go through contortions trying to deal with Gingrich’s sudden strong showing for the nomination, my friend was right on the idea and just wrong on the timing. The rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 elections showed a significant portion of the Republican base frustrated and angry. I could empathize with why they were so frustrated, with the state of the recession and the millions of lost jobs. Their anger may have been misplaced, but it was understandable.

I think the biggest mistake of the Republican leadership was making their deal with the devil of the Tea Party. They wanted to tap into the anger to sweep back into the party, and they thought they could bring those new members into line once they came into power. After all, most new members to Congress end up realizing you can’t have your whole loaf, but you can bargain for a half.

The devil, however, had other plans. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated how obstinate and stubborn the freshman class of Republicans would be. The idea that they would hold the United States to the brink of economic default had to be so far out of reality that no one could have anticipated it. Republicans are now left dealing with a new puppy turning into a rabid attack dog – they don’t care who they attack or destroy, they just want their way.

Which brings us back to Gingrich. Anyone who remembers Gingrich’s leadership in the 90s knows the man is just and angry and obstinate as the Tea Party base he is pandering to. Here is a man who would rather shut down the entire government than compromise to a solution, and it costed the Republicans dearly. Yet that same attitude is what catapulted him to win the South Carolina primary, and scare the bejeezus out of Romney and most serious Republican leaders.

The Republican Empire, however, is striking back. In the past week Gingrich has been practically carpet bombed by past and present leaders of the party, highlighting his temper, questionable judgment, and propensity to fudge history and his role in it.

Make no mistake, this is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. If Gingrich wins the nomination, it will send the party into a tailspin that will take them years to recover from. Independent voters will run away screaming for anybody, anything else. Democrats will probably take back the House, despite strong odds against them, and Republicans will be left with a small, bitter minority more intent on shouting in the corner than accomplishing anything useful. It may take decades for a moderate faction to regain control. I still find it doubtful they would spin up a 3rd party, but the infighting would tear the party apart.

However, this is probably all just conjecture. Romney has gone from an underdog in Florida to the front-runner again, all within a week. And just as in Iowa, Gingrich is complaining that he’s getting picked on rather than focusing running a campaign. If Romney wins Florida, it will suddenly become very expensive for Gingrich to fight across all the states with elections on Super Tuesday, and Romney’s ground campaign advantage will set him above Gingrich.

So enjoy the show while it lasts – but when Romney wins, there will still be a significant faction of the Republican Party left feeling bitter and left out. What they do next may well define Republicans for the remainder of the decade.

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