How Bad Is the GOP Rift? Worse Than Democrats in the 1980s

by Stuart Rothenberg September 25, 2013 · 4:18 PM EDT

Political parties seem to suffer through internal battles periodically, but the current state of the GOP is much worse than what Democrats went through some 25 years ago, when organized labor and old-style liberals fought against the Democratic Leadership Council for the soul of the party.

I still remember going to post-election events during the 1980s and watching Al From, then president of the DLC, blame his party’s presidential defeats on liberals and organized labor, only to have someone from the party’s liberal wing whale on From or Will Marshall, the DLC’s first policy director, as Republicans impersonating Democrats.

Now, libertarian and tea party elements of the GOP are in open warfare with pragmatists and institutionalists. Republicans in the House and Senate taunt each other on a daily basis in newspapers or on cable television, which is only too happy to provide a platform.

The structure of today’s parties and the way we consume news make it more difficult for the GOP to resolve its differences successfully.

Both Marshall and From agree that the biggest difference between the 1980s and now is that while the Democratic Party machine of the 1980s was controlled by liberals, the party’s grass roots were more politically diverse. Moderate and conservative Democrats in the South and in rural America knew that their survival depended on changing their party’s ultra-liberal reputation.

“People like Bill Clinton, Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore realized that if they wanted to be president, they needed to change the party. Otherwise, it would be an albatross around our presidential nominee’s neck,” From told me in a recent interview.

“We had some guys who were willing to take some heat [from party liberals]. Chuck Robb was not afraid to take on anyone in the Democratic Party,” continued From, who added that Democrats such as North Carolina’s Jim Hunt and Florida’s Lawton Chiles also “carried some weight in the party.”

“We could rally moderate leaders in the party because we had so many grass-roots moderates,” agreed Marshall, who quite rightly believes that the ideological sorting of the two major parties over the past two decades has created a very different situation now.

Instead of the broad-based, big-tent parties we once had, the parties are now more narrowly ideological and are producing fewer pragmatic officeholders. This is particularly true in the GOP, where fiercely conservative primary voters are selecting more and more candidates who are uncompromisingly ideological.

Without many federal officeholders from the Northeast or other places where taking on the tea party and libertarians might actually be popular, there are relatively few voices — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Arizona Sen. John McCain and New York Rep. Peter T. King are the exceptions — who even attempt to change the party’s tone and direction.

The shrinking number of pragmatists in the party has also intimidated those who remain, making it difficult for the party to have a serious discussion about its direction and how it can broaden its appeal. (A report produced only six months ago by the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project, which addressed the party’s problems, now seems quaint.)

Even the party’s more veteran officeholders, many of whom prefer a more pragmatic approach, seem paralyzed, wanting to change the discussion but unable to dictate to the rank and file how to resolve internal differences and make the party more appealing.

So instead of leading the counterattack, Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell try to stay out of the crossfire. And when someone like Karl Rove tries to restore some semblance of order, he becomes the poster child of the status quo.

Changes in the media have combined to make it more difficult to stop the internecine snipping. Twitter, the Internet, and cable television and talk radio encourage snarky, impolitic comments from less-than-responsible individuals who see how to generate media attention and celebrity status, whether for fundraising or merely to boost their egos.

Finally, both Marshall and From argue, by the end of the 1980s, Democrats were so obviously beaten that the party had no choice but to look for a different approach.

“When you lose five out of six presidential elections and you lose 49 states twice (1972 and 1984), you get the message,” said Marshall, whose March 2013 piece in The Daily Beast is a must-read for anyone interested in comparisons between the 1980s and now.

But while the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential contests, the races have been close enough that party ideologues have ready excuses – bad candidates, a long war in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unfair media, etc. As a result, they have not yet confronted their political problems the way Democrats did, particularly after Michael Dukakis’ defeat in 1988.

But Republican control of the House, which could well extend at least through the rest of the decade, particularly if another Democrat wins the White House in 2016, should not obscure what is happening. Party infighting and the weakening of the party’s pragmatic impulses will continue to erode support for the party until the obvious happens.

“The only remedy for a party that is deluding itself is a major defeat,” says Marshall, thinking back to the 1980s.

That is already making 2016 look like a potentially dangerous election for the GOP.