Republican Factionalism's Future

Rather than predict what will happen in any of the upcoming primary contests this month, I'd like to take a longer view and contemplate where the Republican Party will be headed after the 2012 election. There are three major scenarios as to how this could play out.
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The factional infighting in the Republican Party certainly shows no signs of abating. That's the only clear message the party's electorate sent last night, on what was supposed to be the biggest primary night of the year. This fight began a few years back, when the ultra-purists in the party (the radical wing) began calling their faction the "Tea Party," and then began making lots of noise out in the street. After the 2010 elections, Tea Partiers gained an actual foothold in the House of Representatives and have flummoxed John Boehner ever since. This tug-of-war for party control continued apace last night, and such internecine struggles will continue into the foreseeable future. Neither the radicals nor the establishmentarians in the Republican Party have truly gained full control of the party itself. The voters are divided, and the divisions are on full display in Washington, as well.

Rather than micro-examine Super Tuesday's results or predict what will happen in any of the upcoming primary contests this month (you're probably already maxed out on such analysis by now, right?), instead I'd like to take a longer view and contemplate where the Republican Party will be headed after the 2012 election. There are three major scenarios as to how this could play out, if you'll join with me in what is admittedly some way-way-too-early speculation.

Republicans Win Back the White House

In the first of these scenarios, either Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum wins the Republican nomination and then goes on to beat Barack Obama in November. Assumedly, the Republicans would keep their majority in the House and might even take the Senate -- guaranteeing them the driver's seat on Capitol Hill as well as in the Oval Office for at least the next two years.

In this scenario, no matter who wins the presidency (Santorum or Romney), the divisions within the Republican Party would burst out into the open, in a big way. There would be epic battles between the Tea Partiers and the establishmentarians in Congress -- much like the "progressives-vs.-Blue-Dogs" squabbles Democrats had to deal with during Obama's first two years in office.

Either Santorum or Romney would be leading one faction from the White House, which might tip the scales in that faction's favor (even if that faction didn't have overwhelming numbers within the Republican caucus in Congress). Romney would likely preside over a fairly mainstream Republican Party, which would concentrate more on economic issues than social hot buttons. Santorum would likely do the opposite. How successful either would be is an open question, depending on how the factional chips fell within Congress.

Either way, the factionalism battle within the party would be brutal, hard-fought, and front-and-center in the public's eye. The struggle for ultimate party control would likely go on for years.

Santorum Nominated, Loses to Obama

The "loses-to-Obama" scenarios are a lot more interesting to examine (perhaps I'm biased, because that's a fairly subjective thing to say). If the Republican nominee loses to Barack Obama, the party is going to have to do some serious self-examination, and the big question will be, "What lesson was learned in 2012?"

The answer will depend on who the nominee actually turns out to be. There are really only two viable contenders (at this point): Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Say Mitt stumbles badly out on the campaign trail -- says something so monumentally out of touch that it crosses the line of being downright offensive to Republican base voters. Trashing Ronald Reagan in public, say. Santorum would swoop in and start winning every state, until he grabbed enough delegates to secure the nomination.

The purists in the party would rejoice. Finally -- finally! -- they would have nominated a true-blue (true-red?), staunch social conservative who is not afraid (and actually enjoys) fighting the culture wars. Instead of picking a moderate like John McCain (remember, he was the "moderate" in his race) who could not adequately (or "believably") defend the conservative cause, finally the hard right and Christian right would have one of their own as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party.

Of course, in this scenario, Santorum would be absolutely crushed in the general election. The landslide would be so enormous that it would be impossible to state the magnitude of the Republican loss without a mandatory comparison to Barry Goldwater. Turns out all those moderate suburbanites and independent voters out there are really not into moving American society a half-century or more backwards in time.

The Republican Party would, at this point, either split into two splinter parties (Tea Party Republicans and Grand Old Republicans, one assumes) or go through a period of backlash. This backlash would be the establishmentarians screaming "We told you so!" at the tops of their lungs to the Tea Party faction. "You can't get anything done in Washington unless you get elected, and the only way to get elected is to present a moderate face to the voters," would be the longer version.

The Republican Party would learn the lesson that purists aren't electable on a national scale, and it would likely emerge as a much more cautious entity as a result. The Tea Party would shrink into obscurity, until the next paroxysm of hard-right indulgence, years down the road.

Romney Nominated, Loses to Obama

This is the likelier scenario, at least looking at the current state of the delegate count. Mitt Romney limps across the finish line in a few months' time and secures the Republican Party nomination. Republicans will fall in line behind him once this happens, motivated by their seething hatred for the current occupant of the Oval Office. There will be no "PUMAs" at the Republican Party convention, except for a lonely crowd of Ron Paul followers, protesting vainly.

Romney then goes on to lose to Barack Obama in November (all three of these scenarios leave out the possibility that a third party makes a meaningful run, I should point out, which would complicate matters beyond such simple analysis as this column). Whatever the reason for Mitt's loss (perhaps unemployment drops to 6.9 percent, right before the election), the Republican Party again will take stock of itself, after two presidential disappointments in a row.

But the lesson they learn may be exactly the wrong one. Romney, after all, is the moderate in the race (no, really!). The purists in the party are going to scream, "This is what happens when you don't back a true conservative!" Two "moderate" candidates losing two elections in a row -- elections that Republicans were convinced were theirs for the taking -- is going to further enrage an already angry base. After all, the Tea Partiers didn't rise until after McCain lost, and the party took a very sharp turn to the right. If history repeats itself, this time the Tea Party could demand the reins of power in the Republican Party, and the establishment Republicans would be so demoralized that they might just go along with such a radical idea.

How effective this gambit would be would depend heavily on the makeup of Congress after the election. If Republicans lose the House, their voice will be a lot quieter, for instance. But the real consequence of such a purist turn wouldn't be evident until the next presidential election.

Remember, Republicans almost always nominate the guy who is "next in line" from the previous contest. If Romney wins the nomination this time around (but not the White House), in 2016 the next Republican in line is going to be none other than Rick Santorum. Which would indeed be an interesting turn of events.

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