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The future of Tea Party-GOP infighting

The conventional storyline about the GOP establishment/Tea Party split is that it is ideological — a battle between pragmatic Republicans and more doctrinaire conservatives. In reality, what’s happening now is that, in intra-Republican battles, ideology is losing relevance, as these squabbles are growing increasingly disconnected from policy realities.

Paradoxically, this is why predictions of the Tea Party’s demise are premature — and the Tea Party is likely to be around for a long time to come, in some form or other.

Politico reports on a new battle underway in Oklahoma, one that is a hint that intra-Republican battles are taking on a new kind of post-ideological cast.

Senator Tom Coburn is retiring, and his replacement will almost certainly be a Republican. The primary campaign is heating up, with the original front-runner,  Rep. James Lankford, who came into office in the Tea Party wave of 2010, suddenly finding himself accused of not being sufficiently conservative. Another candidate, T.W. Shannon, who until recently was Speaker of the Oklahoma House, is being backed by a team of Tea Party all-stars, including Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, and Mike Lee.

Says Politico:

It’s a new strand of Republican civil war, not the typical insurgent-versus-establishment story in the Sooner State, but a battle on the right for the deepest conservative bona fides. And if Shannon pulls off an upset over Lankford, it would send a message to Republicans: Watch out, the tea party can still shake up a primary.

High among Lankford’s alleged sins is that he got himself a spot in the Republican leadership. In other words, he achieved a position of power and influence. And that alone is proof that he is not a “real” conservative, regardless of the actual positions he espouses. It’s about ideology, but only in a way that is completely divorced from policy. At a time when they believe socialism is on the march, conservatives’ immediate target is the people on their own side.

Here’s another example. Look at this ad, from a candidate for a Georgia House seat:

You’ll notice the complete lack of a policy grievance in this ad. Though Mr. Stone surely has plenty, what makes him ready to take up arms is getting rid of the GOP House leadership, purging those whose faith is less than pure. That isn’t even posed as a means to an end (other than “standing up to Obama,” which means virtually nothing); the fight within the party is the end in itself.

It’s hard to count how many times over the last five years someone has said that this time, for real, the Tea Party is on its heels and will fade away. But it’s now becoming clear that while the ability of the GOP’s more radical members to actually shape events may wax and wane, intramural ideological conflict on the right is here to stay.

If there was ever a moment you’d think would inspire unity among conservatives, it’s this one. Everyone on the right, from the monocle-sporting captain of industry to the tricorner hat-wearing Tea Partier, has a common enemy in Barack Obama. A couple of years from now, a politician they hate almost as much (Hillary Clinton) could become president and extend their nightmare. And yet, they’re consumed with internecine battles.

This really is a fundamental transformation of the conservative movement, and one I don’t think those on the right have fully grappled with. To be fair, it’s unclear how much of an effect will this have on the GOP’s broader prospects. The nature of this dynamic is that the intramural arguments become most intense where the ability of Democrats to capitalize on them is most limited — like an Oklahoma Senate race or a Georgia House race. Without much concern about a general election, Republicans are free to engage in arguments over who hates John Boehner more, and no matter how ugly it gets, they’ll still hold the seat.

But there is one way Democrats may benefit: the continuation of these battles means that no Republican who wants national office can ever make a clean break from his or her party’s extremists. Which just makes future gridlock — in which Democrats hold the White House, Republicans hold the House, and the Senate goes back and forth — all the more likely.