A GOP Civil War: Who Benefits?
If the Republican Party descends into civil war over the next two years, a luncheon in October of this year will count as its Fort Sumter. On the second day of the wildly controversial government shutdown, GOP senators gathered for a private midday meal to discuss their next steps. Kelly Ayotte, elected by New Hampshire voters in 2010 as a Tea Party darling, stood up and walked toward her Texas colleague Ted Cruz. She was waving the printout of a mass email sent by the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), a group closely identified with Cruz. The email harshly denounced 25 GOP “traitors” who “betrayed their principles.”
How did they do such a terrible thing? By casting a procedural vote—a vote to end debate on a “continuing resolution” that would have kept the government open. Listing such conservative stalwarts as Ayotte, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Thune of South Dakota, and John Cornyn of Texas, the email condemned their insufficiently implacable opposition to ObamaCare and scolded them for “giving Democrats the power to implement this terrible law.” Declaring that “most Republicans promise to stand up for conservative principles during the campaign, but then let us down after they’re elected,” the SCF went on to “thank Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) for their extraordinary courage.”
A startled Cruz had to muster some of that extraordinary courage to answer an emotional Ayotte, who struck a third solon at the scene as “especially furious.” Ayotte demanded: “Will you disown this awful thing that’s aiming to hurt the majority of your colleagues?” Cruz replied: “I will not,” thus provoking a response that several of those present later described to the press as a “lynch mob.” Republican after Republican took turns blasting the golden boy of the right for his disrespect, divisiveness, immaturity, and utter failure to provide a strategy for achieving even minimal GOP gains through the deeply unpopular shutdown.
The crisis ended two weeks later with a more or less complete Republican humiliation. The government was reopened with not a single concession made to those who had engineered the crisis. Cruz then made a muted attempt to reconcile with the 44 other Republicans who had been elected to serve alongside him at least until the end of 2014. At another closed-door luncheon on October 30, Cruz attempted to reassure his beleaguered colleagues that he would not intervene on behalf of their primary challengers. Speaking of the SCF, which had recently invested more than $1 million in scathing attack ads against a half dozen Republican incumbents, Cruz said he would refuse to help the group raise more money and would request that his image be removed from their materials. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, himself the target of particularly nasty ads saying he had “helped Barack Obama and Harry Reid fund ObamaCare,” tartly noted that Senator Rand Paul (McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian) had already taken similar steps to disassociate himself from such attacks more than six months before. But he nonetheless thanked Cruz for his belated gesture of semi-solidarity.
Even as the most strident conservatives in both houses of Congress pulled back from their prior confrontational postures toward fellow Republicans in an effort to preserve working relationships on Capitol Hill, the grass roots continued to smolder and blaze with intra-party antagonism. In crucial 2014 Senate races, at least a half dozen well-entrenched Republican incumbents face primary challenges from insurgents with Tea Party affiliations.
Never before in American history have so many sitting senators faced serious opposition from candidates within their own party. The celebrated Republican populist victories of recent years involved competition for open seats—in which younger insurgent candidates such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio defeated more moderate and better-known rivals in bids to replace retiring Republicans.1 Only very rarely have Republicans seeking reelection lost their seats to ideological opponents in primary battles. One such battle did lead to a grassroots triumph in 2010, when the mild-mannered and deeply conservative three-termer Robert Bennett of Utah lost to the former Supreme Court clerk Mike Lee, who then went on to certain victory in the general election. But that same year, the little-known Joe Miller in Alaska edged Senator Lisa Murkowski in a breathlessly close Republican primary and then conducted such an inept campaign as his party’s nominee that he lost the general election to Murkowski, who ran as a write-in candidate for her own seat. Two years later, outspoken Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock terminated the distinguished 36-year Senate career of Richard Lugar in the primary before terminating his own general-election candidacy (and handing the seat to the Democrats) with comments in a televised debate that a baby conceived in forcible rape counted as a “gift from God.”
As with the examples of Miller and Mourdock, primary challenges to incumbent GOP senators within the last 50 years have produced results ranging from the disappointing to the disastrous. In 1978, the anti-tax activist Jeffrey Bell, a brilliant disciple of William F. Buckley’s, took on New Jersey’s “silk-stocking Republican” Clifford Case, who had served in the House and Senate for 34 consecutive years. Case described himself as a “middle-of-the-road progressive” and lost to Bell, a recent transplant from Texas, by a mere 3,473 votes. The general election proved far less competitive, with basketball star Bill Bradley, the Democratic nominee, trouncing Bell by a comfortable eight-point margin and beginning an uninterrupted string of Democratic Senate victories covering 14 different elections and 35 years of New Jersey history.
California displayed a similar pattern, after the state superintendent of public instruction, Max Rafferty, a charismatic Goldwater conservative, took on three-term, good-government moderate (and Republican Senate Whip) Tom Kuchel in the turbulent year of 1968. After his narrow victory in a bitter primary, Rafferty lost a close race to doctrinaire liberal Alan Cranston even as presidential nominee Richard Nixon carried his home state by 220,000 votes. After Cranston’s four terms, his even more liberal successor, Barbara Boxer, won four terms of her own and holds the seat to this day. In other words, Rafferty’s audacious challenge proved to be an important milestone in California’s fateful transition from reliably red state (Republicans won 9 of 10 presidential races there from 1952 through 1988) to the deepest of deep-blue sure things (Democratic nominees have carried the state for the past six elections).
As it happens, one of us—Michael—retains an indelible memory of Max Rafferty’s Los Angeles victory celebration when he won his upset primary victory 45 years ago: I was then taking part in the larger Democratic rally scheduled across the hall on that balmy June night at the Ambassador Hotel. I had taken a leave of absence from my junior year at Yale to campaign around the country for Robert Kennedy and had gathered with more than a thousand fellow volunteers to await final returns on our closely fought primary race against Senator Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy addressed the jubilant crowd around midnight, then exited the ballroom through the kitchen—where he met his assassin. The exultation of a victory gave way instantly to waves of moaning, gasps, and tears.
Meanwhile, the Rafferty campaigners got final confirmation of their own candidate’s surprising win against Senator Kuchel, and their own party kicked into full force with a Dixieland band blaring “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The hotel was on lockdown, so none of us could leave. I walked over to their shindig, lavishly festooned with bunting and balloons, and nervously tapped one of the celebrants at the edge of the crowd. He was a heavy-set, balding guy in a blue-and-white striped seersucker jacket. “Hey, come on!” I shouted over the din. “Senator Kennedy has been shot—right across the hall. Don’t you think you ought to get somebody to tone it down?”
“Another Kennedy down? Another reason to celebrate!” he laughed, and turned away.
That awful response didn’t represent anything like the norm for the Rafferty campaigners, of course. But this smug self-righteousness, the ideological depersonalization of a fellow American who was deemed an enemy rather than a neighbor with wrong ideas, has become a regrettable norm in American political life. That kind of depersonalization continues to characterize the left’s response to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and it has begun to seep into the primary challenges for incumbent Republican senators in 2014—challenges not to partisan antagonists or those with genuinely different worldviews but to conservatives deemed insufficiently or falsely right-wing.
Consider Matt Bevin, the Kentucky businessman who has loaned $600,000 to his own campaign to savage Mitch McConnell and his supposedly “liberal” record—a strange designation for a politician who has earned a lifetime rating of 90 percent from the American Conservative Union. While relentlessly slamming McConnell as a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only), it was Bevin who once abandoned all notions of party loyalty in 2004 when he decided he could see no meaningful difference between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. Bevin actively campaigned for Michael Peroutka, the hapless presidential nominee of the Constitution Party. Peroutka drew one-tenth of 1 percent of the national popular vote. The Senate Conservatives Fund now provides crucial support to Bevin’s current quixotic quest.
In South Carolina, Lindsey Graham won landslide Senate victories in 2002 and 2008, and compiled an ACU rating of 89 percent along the way. But one of his three Tea Party–aligned challengers, Nancy Mace, slams his “outrageous” voting record, his alleged efforts to “appease” Barack Obama, and his supposed “go-along-to-get-along” approach to leadership—despite Graham’s prominent place in efforts to block the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and to force the administration to disgorge the truth about Benghazi.
Three-term senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming received similar condemnation from his primary challenger, Liz Cheney, despite his status as one of the Senate’s most consistent conservatives (with a 93 percent lifetime rating from the ACU).
None of these vigorously challenged incumbents could properly qualify as moderate or collaborationist, any more than rock-solid conservatives like Pat Roberts of Kansas or Thad Cochran of Mississippi, both of whom have also drawn 2014 Tea Party rivals. During the recent government shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis, Roberts emerged as one of the most outspoken and conspicuous supporters of the filibuster against ObamaCare staged by Ted Cruz, but that hasn’t stopped physician Milton Wolf, who yearns for a “citizen legislature” and rails against “career politicians,” from launching a bitter assault on the long-time senator’s record and character.
Handicappers predict none of these GOP challengers will succeed in unseating their well-established opponents. But they can still generate nomination fights that drain millions from Republican donors and solidify the image of a dispirited, dysfunctional, badly fractured conservative movement. While beleaguered incumbents like to put the best face on such situations by claiming that a “spirited” primary (whatever that means) somehow reinvigorates the party, there’s no evidence at all that Republicans help their prospects when they concentrate on attacking one another rather than assailing Democrats. Even when incumbents prevail in primary battles, they squander funds, focus, and dignity that might otherwise help them sail to victory in general-election campaigns. Their challengers will also leave behind accusations and insults that the Democrats can easily recycle in November—in much the same way that the Obama campaign repurposed over-the-top Newt Gingrich charges about Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital. And in those exceedingly rare occasions when one of the challengers actually beats the odds and wins a nomination (as in the case of Richard Mourdock), the defeated incumbent and his loyalists may feel so bruised and resentful that they offer tepid support, at best, in a general election.
In other words, primary challenges to sitting members of the Senate or the House can seriously damage the party’s overall prospects and most certainly will do nothing to burnish the Republican brand. Regardless of the outcome of each of the various battles in this possible “civil war,” bitter internal disputes over whether a given candidate qualifies for admiration as a pure-bred “true conservative” or deserves contempt as a mongrel squish can only strike swing voters and independents as eccentric, fanatical, or even cultish—especially at a time when barely a third of the electorate describes itself as “conservative.”
It is also peculiarly anachronistic. There was once an ideological divide in the GOP, when liberal Republicans like Clifford Case (alongside Jacob Javits of New York, Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and the geographical outlier Mark Hatfield of Oregon) were genuinely hostile to conservatism and protective of their place in the mainstream “establishment.” They were, indeed, RINOs, if by Republican you mean someone who generally adheres to a right-of-center point of view. But demographic and geographic changes in the United States over the past 40 years have basically made those original RINOs an extinct species. Talking about manifestly conservative politicians of the early 21st century as though they are no different from liberals rightly creates cognitive dissonance in the minds of voters who do not follow the ins and outs of Republican politics day to day, and inclines many of them to back away in discomfort as one does when seeing a married couple squabble in public.
The intra-party bickering qualifies as so manifestly self-destructive, in fact, that it raises the question of why any sane and thoughtful person would support the project of what might be called “party purification.” The common answer, promoted by prominent talk-radio hosts nearly every day and echoed at Tea Party rallies and other gatherings of true believers, involves the stubborn conviction that “real conservatism wins every time.” According to this line of reasoning, nominees like McCain or Romney (or Chris Christie or Jeb Bush) will always lose to a fiery liberal ideologue like Barack Obama because the public perceives their conservatism as wavering, inconsistent, and inauthentic. The argument is the grandchild of Richard Nixon’s 1969 argument that a “silent majority” of patriotic conservatives awaits mobilization by inspired leadership. This idea suggests that an assemblage of solid citizens has become temporarily disenchanted with electoral politics and has taken to slumbering in the family-friendly vastness of flyover country—needing only the merest kiss of a Constitutionalist Prince Charming to awaken them to eager activism that will “take our country back.” Ted Cruz gave direct expression to this notion in an interview on ABC News in July 2013. “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges,” he explained. “Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”
This formulation ignores the experience of landslide winners such as Richard Nixon in 1972 or George H.W. Bush in 1988, whose cautious campaigns that sought to file the rough edges off their reputations for harsh conservatism (remember “a kinder, gentler America”?) hardly presented them as “strong conservatives.” Going back a bit further in political history, Nixon’s own mentor, Dwight Eisenhower, reveled in his easygoing, middle-of-the-road reputation and won two sweeping victories that revived a long-frustrated GOP after two decades in the wilderness. Just four years after Ike left office, the party turned to the most uncompromising conservative of them all, who inspired his acolytes with the ringing declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” but Barry Goldwater went on to lose 44 states in one of the ugliest routs in Republican history.
As for Ronald Reagan, he earned his two epic victories not by generating tidal waves of freshly mobilized conservatives but by being massively appealing to precisely those moderates that today’s Tea Party faithfuls so conspicuously despise. In fact, the percentage of all voters who described themselves as “conservatives” for Reagan’s first landslide victory in 1980 was far lower (28 percent) than the percentage who showed up for Mitt Romney’s losing effort in 2012 (35 percent, a record high). Reagan won because he carried self-described “moderates” by six points and won independents by a staggering 15 percent. With those margins at the center of the electorate, it hardly mattered that self-described Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the 1980 exit polls by a seemingly fatal margin of 43 to 28 percent.
Some of those who argue Romney lost because of his lack of conservative principles offer as proof the fact that “3 million missing Republicans,” turned off by Romney’s impurities, failed to show up at the polls on Election Day. Given that Romney lost by 4 million votes, this argument might seem problematic from the get-go, but if indeed millions of disgruntled conservatives stayed home, such a fact would support the contention that Republican candidates suffer when they are not seen as sufficiently conservative. But it’s not a fact. It’s not true. The people who keep arguing this point fail to grasp that Romney’s vote total at the end of Election Night 2012 was not the final result. Romney’s ultimate tally—60,932,235—was actually a million more than McCain drew in 2008, and just a million fewer than George W. Bush had won in his triumphant reelection four years before. In fact, the Republican vote totals have proved remarkably stable in each of the past three elections, as did the percentage of the electorate who saw themselves as “conservative” (34 to 35 percent each time).
Moreover, the results in down-ticket races in the 2012 election suggest that Romney might have hurt himself more had his campaign adopted a more aggressively ideological tone. He succeeded in carrying five states—West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Montana, and North Dakota—in which ardently conservative Republican Senate candidates went down to crushing defeat, despite strong Tea Party support. In crucial swing states such as Virginia, Ohio, and Florida, Romney also came notably closer to beating Obama than did outspokenly conservative GOP Senate nominees to besting their Democratic rivals.
This pattern reflects a deeper truth about the Republican Party and its national electorate. It is not just general-election voters who fail to embrace candidates who claim to be the truest and purest conservatives. For the past quarter century and the past seven presidential election cycles, Republican primary voters have demonstrated a consistent preference for consensus-building candidates from the party’s very broad center and have displayed a reliable reluctance to accept ideologically pure contenders from the GOP’s more combative edge.
Despite persistent legend, recent nominees—George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney—haven’t been imposed on the unwilling grass roots by fat-cat bosses in smoke-filled rooms. They have won a series of fiercely contested primaries, beating such impassioned conservative alternatives as Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and many more. To believe that contenders who failed to win the GOP nomination would have fared better in the general election is to embrace the utterly illogical proposition that they could have appealed more strongly to the independents and Democrats who turned up in November than they did to the Republican loyalists who voted against them in the caucus and primary process. When it comes to the practical utility of ideological purity, why should we expect true-believer candidates to perform better with voters who don’t share their conservative outlook than they do with primary voters who do?
One of the reasons that “true conservatives” have regularly underperformed in nomination struggles in recent years is that the differences among Republicans have become far more stylistic than substantive. They have come to involve questions of strategy and tone far more than divisions over policy. Every GOP representative in both houses of Congress voted against ObamaCare and opposed raising taxes; all credible candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 will be pro-life (more or less), pro-gun, and in favor of reduced spending, simpler taxes, and strong border security. On the divisive issue of illegal immigration, not one of the candidates in either 2008 or 2012 (no, not even John McCain) backed the path to citizenship previously endorsed by GOP winners such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
This wide-ranging and durable consensus on major issues—a conservative consensus without question—has allowed the House majority under John Boehner to maintain remarkable operational unity over the past three years. But one would not know that from the tone of discussion over the past few months. Cruz and Lee and others made it an axiom that a Republican’s conservatism was to be judged not by shared beliefs or prior votes but by his acceptance and advocacy of Cruz’s and Lee’s tactics. It was time to “fight,” and there was only one way to fight, and that way was to shut down the government. Failure to “fight” was not only deemed cowardice; it was considered tantamount to a vote for ObamaCare. Meanwhile, as they strained to hold the line, ObamaCare made its debut and promptly began to self-destruct. But only when the Cruz-Lee non-strategy was abandoned would the general political discussion turn, as it then did with a vengeance, to the looming national health-care disaster.
The Civil War of the 1860s brought devastation to the country and claimed more than 700,000 lives—but at least it helped to settle disputes on slavery and states’ rights. The potential Republican civil war of 2014 could bring destruction to a great political party but would resolve no significant disputes. At times, the enthusiasm for ferocious but unfocused intra-party conflict has displayed a distinctly suicidal edge: On the eve of the government shutdown, Representative John Culberson of Texas addressed a meeting of House Republicans and tried to encourage his colleagues by citing the doomed heroes of United Flight 93. As they broke up their final caucus, preparing to face an uncertain strategy and a largely hostile public, Culberson cheerfully observed that the occasion reminded him of September 11 and bellowed to the assembled politicos, “Let’s roll!”
Other leaders of the no-compromise caucus preferred to invoke the bloody sacrifice of the defenders of the Alamo, or of the 300 Spartans who held off the Persians (temporarily) before the mass slaughter of Thermopylae. Ted Cruz himself told a talk-radio audience that he took his inspiration from Braveheart, fondly recalling the scene in his favorite film when Mel Gibson’s 13th-century Scottish rebel urges his warriors to “Hold! Hold! Hold!” Somehow, the Texas senator neglected to remind his listeners that the movie ended with Gibson’s character being drawn and quartered.
Those who entertain this odd fascination with self-sacrifice actually bear little comparison with the selfless heroes they celebrate. Rather than risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, they are actually hoping to give new life to their own political careers, earn fortunes in campaign contributions, and win honor from voices in conservative media who have made a conscious marketing decision to stake out the most uncompromising positions they can to protect their right flanks from broadcast insurgents.
Nor will the members of Congress who stood with Cruz and Lee suffer from their choices; safe in their gerrymandered House districts or serving in Senate seats from unassailably red states, they won’t perish at the end of Persian spears or go down in flames in a Pennsylvania cornfield. Even those who fail miserably in their long-shot primary challenges next year may enjoy long-term benefits from enhanced press attention, higher speaker’s fees, guest shots on cable news, and even potential book contracts.
The incentive to engineer and profit from conflict is even greater for those who are not running for office but who are making a name and an increasingly good living in the larger political universe.
As the centralized party structure of the GOP (and the Democrats) began to weaken over the past decade due to campaign-finance reform legislation and various court decisions, a new class of political activists began to rise—first on the left and then on the right. Harnessing the power of the Internet to raise money faster, more cheaply, and more broadly than anyone had ever imagined possible, this new class was and is remarkably entrepreneurial. It aggressively seeks marketing opportunities; it continually tests new messages for their effectiveness and pull; it piggybacks off current news events to deepen its brand with consumers.
The key, as with all marketing, is emotion—often, negative emotion. Bush-hatred drove grassroots leftist fundraising to unparalleled heights in 2004. Fear of ObamaCare and the stimulus helped drive unprecedented Tea Party efforts in 2010 that led to the colossal GOP House victories in November of that year.
Once successful, however, angry messages get stale. New targets of opportunity must be found. And many of these Anger Entrepreneurs on the right mine their gold in the negative emotions of conservatives who are having grave difficulty making sense of a world in which almost everyone they know dislikes liberalism and despises Obama but in which liberals and Obama seem to have the upper hand. The answer seducing all too many of them is that their cause has been sabotaged from within and that the best route to greater success lies in removing the saboteurs.
The rewards for marketing a successful message can be vast. Last year, a fight inside the conservative organization FreedomWorks led to the departure of its chairman, former Representative Dick Armey. He was bought out with an astounding $8 million handshake—from a grassroots group formerly known as Citizens for a Sound Economy dedicated to fiscal prudence and the promotion of ideas. With the departure of Armey, an experienced political hand, FreedomWorks broke free to dedicate itself in 2013 to threatening Republicans who did not support the effort to shut down the government.
Perhaps the greatest example of the growing power of this outside entrepreneurship came this year when South Carolina firebrand Jim DeMint resigned from his Senate seat to take over as head of the Heritage Foundation and its recently organized political arm, Heritage Action. With Heritage Action’s extraordinarily aggressive advocacy of the argument that the only acceptable vote for a conservative to take in September 2013 was the immediate and total defunding of ObamaCare, DeMint showed he could be far more influential outside the realm of electoral politics than he ever had been within it.
And what DeMint and his fellow activists insisted upon meant certain defeat. Perhaps they honestly believed along with Cruz and Lee that there would be a national uprising against ObamaCare (before its disastrous implementation began) that would force Democratic senators from Republican-voting states to withdraw their support and vote to destroy it perhaps with enough new recruits to the cause to override the president’s promised veto. But once it became clear that this was a fantasy and some 22 Democratic senators would never turn against ObamaCare, and there would be no defunding, they refused to abandon their infatuation with glorious martyrdom. You proved your loyalty and fealty to conservative principles only if you agreed to go down with the ship.
This notion of victory through defeat resonates with many who seem to believe the cause is already lost. After all, whenever desperate battlers turn to suicidal strategies, they do so because they understand that they have no realistic hope of conventional victory.
The determination of some extremists on the right to tear apart the Republican Party has a disturbing historical echo—hearkening back to the enthusiastic “fire-eaters” in Charleston and Montgomery who forced cooler heads to go along with secession in 1861. They knew they had little chance of prevailing in an all-out military struggle against the far more populous and industrialized North, but they became intoxicated with the romance and excitement of their doomed “glorious cause.” One of us—Michael—recently received a long letter from a furious listener of his talk-radio show. He denounced me as a “traitor” and a “gutless wimp who won’t lift a finger to rescue wounded warriors from the field of battle,” thanks to my refusal to back Ted Cruz in his shutdown strategy. My correspondent concluded his diatribe with this warning: “If you and your neo-con buddies succeed in undermining the heroic last stand fight by true conservatives and the Tea Party then we will have no alternative but to fight a second civil war. And this time, I can assure you, we will win.” Actually, we always assumed “we” had won last time, too. Certainly, the Republican Party honored the successful War for the Union as a significant triumph that gave it unbreakable majorities for more than 60 years.
The Republican Party still exists to contest elections at every level, from townships to the White House. Like the Democratic Party, it was once a jumble of often contradictory regional interests that every now and then managed to coalesce nationally with a unified message. But it has come over time to serve as the electoral vehicle for the right of center, generally speaking, just as the Democratic Party serves as the vehicle for the left of center. To fulfill its mandate, it must attract votes and voters, especially because—as has been the case since the New Deal—the GOP’s self-identified following has always been somewhat smaller than its rival’s. What purpose can be served from reducing the reach of the party and limiting its appeal? There is obviously no benefit here to the Republican Party, but there is great benefit that might accrue to those who seek to control the political marketplace on the right.
The most important lessons about sacrifice and victory come from an even better Oscar-winning movie than Braveheart—one that celebrates a legendary commander who won not only isolated battles but also the wider war. In Franklin Schaffner’s Patton, the general delivers an unforgettable exhortation standing in front of a suitably gigantic American flag. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” he growls. “You win a war by getting the other poor dumb bastard to die for his country.” It was Nixon’s favorite movie. He watched it repeatedly before winning 61 percent of the vote in 1972.
Republicans will win meaningful victories only when they lose their appetite for martyrdom and fratricide and concentrate on forcing the other side to pay a political price for its own incompetent performance and dysfunctional ideology. Most Republicans, as the history of the last 40 years demonstrates, want precisely that. The question now is whether this real majority will be overrun. If that happens, the truest beneficiary of the intra-Republican civil war will be the Democratic Party, and those who divided the right will deserve some share of the blame for the advancement of the very policies and principles they claim to abhor.
1 That same year in the race for Joe Biden’s old Delaware seat, the bizarre Christine O’Donnell bested the Republican regular Mike Castle in Delaware and thereby ensured the victory of a Democratic nonentity named Chris Coons, who would almost certainly have lost to Castle.