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Eugene Robinson on the GOP's civil war

Sarah Palin backed a third-party conservative in a New York House race.
Sarah Palin backed a third-party conservative in a New York House race. (Al Grillo/associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 6, 2009

Democrats have some thinking to do after Tuesday's elections, but Republicans don't have time to think. They're too busy trying to survive the party's internal purge and avoid being shipped off to political Siberia.

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Will loyal members inform on others for harboring suspiciously moderate views? Will anyone judged guilty have to wear a sign saying "Republican In Name Only" as penance? Will there be re-education camps? Will deviationists face the Enhanced Interrogation Technique of being forced to listen to the wit and wisdom of Glenn Beck, at ear-splitting volume, for days on end?

Or worse: When Sarah Palin's memoir, "Going Rogue," hits bookstores later this month, will the ideologically impure be required to read -- and commit to memory -- every golden word? Her publisher might consider culling the highlights into a pocket edition. That way, any Republican caught without a copy of "Quotations From Chairman Sarah" could be summarily expelled from the party.

The big story from Tuesday's vote ought to be that independents, who gave Democrats their sweeping victory last November, went with the Republicans this time in New Jersey and Virginia. Indeed, Democrats are trying to figure out what this means. Given President Obama's continuing personal popularity, has his cool, nonconfrontational, consensus-building style been the right strategy all along? Or, as some on the left believe, did a lack of fight and fervor leave independents cold? Or was it all about the unemployment numbers?

But the Democrats' soul-searching is far less compelling than the Republicans' civil war. The "tea party" conservatives -- led by Palin, Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Armey and others fed up with the GOP "establishment" -- managed to get Democrat Bill Owens elected in a solidly Republican Upstate New York congressional district. They accomplished this feat by driving the Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, from the race because of her apostasy on abortion and gay rights.

The Palinites -- because of her star power, she's the de facto leader of the movement at this point, so it's fair to name it after her -- backed a third-party conservative named Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava pulled out and threw what support she had to Owens, who won by four points.

The net result is minus-one for the Republicans and plus-one for the Democrats in the House. That arithmetic seems to have escaped Erick Erickson, editor in chief of the Web site RedState.com, which is almost as influential in the tea party world as Palin's Facebook page. He wrote: "This is a huge win for conservatives. . . . We did exactly what we set out to do -- crush the establishment-backed GOP candidate."

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele crowed about winning the two governorships. "Assume the Heisman position. Yeah, baby. That's my moment," he said Wednesday on MSNBC. But even Steele couldn't find joy in the New York debacle. "I don't see a victory in losing seats," he said, quite logically.

The tea party people have made clear, however, that logic doesn't count -- and that this is just the beginning. The next target, now that they've made the world safe from Scozzafava, seems to be Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the Senate. Crist committed the unforgivable sin of supporting Obama's stimulus bill and must face a conservative former state legislator, Marco Rubio, in the primary.

Erickson wrote that "if Crist wants to own the mantle of 'GOP Establishment Candidate,' let's tie it around his waist and throw him in one of Florida's many lagoons."

I guess Florida lagoons are a substitute for Siberian tundra.

The good news for the Republican Party is that its far-right conservative base is energized. The bad news is that the far-right conservative base isn't big enough to elect national or even statewide candidates without help from moderate Republicans and independents. The two new Republican governors-elect, Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, understood that. If the party is going to insist on ideological purity from every candidate in every state, it will cede the political center to the Democrats.

Sensible Republicans get it. But any GOP officeholder up for reelection has to worry about a possible primary challenge from the right, with tea party fanatics yelling about revolution, Palin posting attacks on social networking sites and Beck shouting treason. I don't expect to see many profiles in courage.

Republicans, hide any old copies of The Nation you might have lying around. Keep all televisions tuned to Fox News at all times. The Palinite Putsch might be coming for you.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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