In short, as John Podhoretz recently wrote in the New York Post, this election isn’t a coronation for the Republicans as it’s a vote of no confidence in the Democrats. The political turmoil on the right, most commonly understood as “the Tea Parties vs. the establishment,” that we’ve witnessed over the last year was in many respects a sideshow compared with the fact that support of Obama and the Democrats among independents, moderate Republicans, the elderly and, most recently, among women and low-income families, has cratered. Last week’s New York Times/CBS News poll found that for the first time since 1982, when polling began, the GOP has the edge among women. For the most part, the bulk of these voters aren’t moving to the GOP so much as they are fleeing the Democrats. That’s how it works in a two-party system; one side’s loss is the other side’s gain.
And that is why the Republicans are going to start turning on each other like drag queens at a wig sale. It’s the nature of politics that when you’re out of power, everyone can agree on what the top priority should be: Get back in power. But, the only way to get back in power is to attract people who might not share all of your goals or your passion. Majority coalitions by definition have diverse groups within them. FDR’s coalition had everybody from Klansmen to blacks, socialists to industrialists. The new GOP coalition isn’t nearly so exotic, but it does have its internal contradictions.
We’ve had a preview of them in the Delaware primary fight between O’Donnell and Rep. Michael Castle. O’Donnell partisans hold that squishy inside-the-beltway RINOs (Republicans in name only) refused to rally to a right-wing stalwart. O’Donnell’s conservative critics insist that they are no less sincere in their principles; they simply thought O’Donnell was a risky choice compared with the comparative sure bet the GOP had in Castle to take Joe Biden’s seat.
The details of that family spat will no doubt soon be forgotten, but the relevance won’t. The populist vs. establishment storyline is going to come back with a vengeance, particularly given the crowded field of potential GOP presidential contenders. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee won’t be the only ones writing off criticism from Karl Rove or George Will as “inside the Beltway elitism” (nor will they always be wrong when they do).