Clarence Page: GOP civil war simmers

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A civil war is brewing within the Republican Party. It’s a fight between two familiar factions: the party establishment vs. the right-wingers.

Think back to the Anybody-But-Mitt movement that threw a succession of conservative front-runners in front of moderate-turned-conservative Mitt Romney’s long march to the nomination, and you will have a pretty good idea of what factional divide I’m talking about.

Conventional wisdom on the right has long held that victory over President Barack Obama should be easy, especially with the unemployment rate topping 8 percent. The right was energized; the left was more disenchanted than Chicago Cub fans in October.

Yet polls right up to the conventions mostly showed Obama virtually tied or slightly ahead of Romney and giving a widening edge to Obama ever since, especially in the decisive battleground states.

While the Democratic National Convention is remembered for a speech by former President Bill Clinton that sold Obama’s presidency better than Obama usually does, the Republicans are remembered mostly for Clinton Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair.

And that was before a series of unforced errors by Romney and his campaign. There was his too-hasty statement during the attack on our Libyan embassy that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

There was a Politico story reporting strife within the campaign. As the campaign announced a reboot, a video surfaced in which Romney, talking to wealthy donors in Boca Raton, appeared to write off 47 percent of the voters as moochers who would never vote for him anyway.

Suddenly, conservative commentators were publicly entertaining what to them had been almost unthinkable: What if Romney loses?

Google up the words “Republican civil war” and you may quickly come up, as I did, with a list of links to commentaries about what will happen within the Grand Old Party if Romney loses.

Factional infighting often follows losing campaigns. In Romney’s case, the rounds of recrimination and finger pointing are quite premature, since he still theoretically could win. This would require several tossup states now leaning toward Obama to shift direction, but miracles happen in politics.

If Romney does lose, judging by the fury already erupting from his conservative critics, I foresee the factions exchanging fusillades of “I told you so.”

One side will blame the loss on Romney’s turning too conservative in his rhetoric for even conservatives to believe. The other will blame Romney for failing to sound conservative enough.

Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, a Ronald Reagan speechwriter, spoke for many when she blogged, “It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one. It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. ... An intervention is in order. ‘Mitt, this isn’t working.’”

Farther-right voices like Rush Limbaugh, Erick Erickson and Ann Coulter urged Romney to double down and wage a full-throated charge against Obama’s “welfare state.”

The current infighting is not new. The tea party wing has been at odds with moderates since its birth in 2009. Nor is infighting unique to Republicans. Democrat-on-Democrat bickering goes back at least to the days of Will Rogers’ variously quoted declaration: “I am not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.”

What makes the currently premature Romney post-mortems notable is how fierce the fighting sounds so soon before all of the votes are cast.

“How does a Republican lose in this environment?” fumed blogger Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. “If the GOP standard bearer does lose, there should be Robespierre-like recriminations.”

Well, no one expects the tumbrils and guillotine of the French Revolution, I hope. But the current GOP disarray resembles the flurry of factional blame that followed conservative Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss in 1964. Conservatives didn’t get the victory they really sought until Reagan won in 1980.

Revolutions don’t happen overnight.

But let’s not be too hasty. Elections always have ways of surprising us. Romney still could turn things around, even if it takes a mammoth stumble by Obama for that to happen. Perhaps then, after his victory, we can find out what this moderate-turned-conservative really believes.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.

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