Monday, October 10, 2011

Fresh cracks in the elephant’s hide

In June 1858, during his unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate, that revered legacy Republican Abraham Lincoln noted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was speaking about the United States grappling with divisions over slavery.

But that’s advice the 21st-century successor members of his party have failed to follow in their hunt for a nominee to face down President Obama in the 2012 campaign.

With little time left in the year, with the need for a unified Republican front growing every week, and with a diverse group of challengers that’s shown no sign of shrinking any time soon, it’s clear there are big fissures in the unified hide of the GOP.

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On Monday, Marin Cogan and Jake Sherman of Politico reported on a “civil war” taking shape within and around the Republican Study Committee — essentially the party’s Philosophical Police Department, the congressional lawmakers who decide how conservative “conservative” is.

Politico reports that former members of the RSC have spoken out about heavy-handed tactics of the group's chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio. Others have condemned the purity tests necessary for acceptance by the RSC's ideological hall monitors.

Politico reported:

“In the past few months, at least three lawmakers have quit the group, an unusual number of defections, according to longtime RSC members and GOP aides. Several others are considering leaving and are speaking openly about their discontent with [Jordan’s] handling of the organization, which has constantly challenged GOP leaders on spending issues. And members say Jordan and the RSC staff unilaterally set broad policy positions without consulting the membership.

“The internal battle within this group of 170 lawmakers reflects a larger debate in the GOP over how far right the party can push before its unity cracks. The RSC fight is also a dispute about tactics — one camp believes the group’s leaders have pushed too far for ideological purity, aiming its fire inward at the expense of team unity. On the other side are those who think the organization has become too bloated with moderates to really work without dissension.”

It all prompted Florida Rep Allen West, one of the attack dogs of the far right, to lament “an überconservative environment that’s going on” in the GOP camp, and its descent into what he called a “circular firing squad,” a phrase more commonly (and historically) used to describe the Democrats.

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If that weren't proof enough of disunity within the GOP's ranks, there's new polling that suggests the Republican field of presidential candidates is in the same turmoil it's been in from the beginning, despite the wise decision of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie not to get in the race, and the decision by political personality Sarah Palin to reject a 2012 bid — finally walking away from a race we knew she never intended to get into in the first place.

Herman Cain, the conservative Georgia talk-radio host, author and former Godfather's Pizza CEO, has clambered to the top of the polls, or near there, more or less consistently over the last two weeks. The sole African American Republican pursuing his party’s nomination has the Beltway pundits scratching their heads, as he's emerged from the status of media afterthought to frontrunner in waiting.

In fact, depending on which poll you consult, he's not waiting to be a frontrunner. First, Cain stunned everyone when he won the Florida straw poll on Sept. 24, besting presumptive poll topper Texas Gov. Rick Perry by fat double digits. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in third.

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The media tried to ignore that one, blithely writing it off as “unscientific,” a “beauty contest,” and a “snapshot” that didn't carry a lot of weight. Then on Oct. 2, we got the straw poll by the National Federation of Republican Women, a survey that found Cain (with 48.9 percent) trouncing Perry (14.1 percent) and Romney (13.3 percent).

More scientific polls still showed Cain climbing strongly. A CBS News poll released on Oct. 4 had Cain tied with Romney (17 percent) atop that poll's leader board. A survey released today by the Harvard Institute of Politics and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics gives Cain a second-place finish with 20 percent of the vote, behind Romney, in first place with 38 percent. Ron Paul placed a distant third. Some candidate named Don’t Know garnered 11 percentage points.

The latest Gallup poll sampling Republican preferences put Romney in first place with 20 percent and Cain in a close second with 18 percent — the difference between their totals within the margin of error.

And in the Bloomberg/Washington Post poll released today, poll respondents asked their preference for the GOP nominee picked Romney first, with 24 percent, followed by … Herman Cain with 16 percent, then Perry with 13 percent. The 6-point margin of error makes the results at least slightly suspect, but clearly the throughline of this poll and the others show rank-and-file Republicans and those leaning Republican wrestling with their own ideas of candidate electability.

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The intrigues within the RSC and Cain’s startling surge in the polls all point to a Republican party exhibiting signs of multiple personality disorder at or near the time when the party needs to start clarifying its identity for the American voter.

The next step in that process presumably happens on Tuesday, with the next in an interminable series of Republican candidates' debates set to take place at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

It’s effectively mid-October, and everyone on the stage on Tuesday night will already know this hunt for self-identity can’t go on forever. Perry needs a big showing, so does Paul. And the others — Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among them — need to justify taking up space on the stage.

Something’s got to give. When a herd of elephants runs rampant over the landscape, trashing the environment while noisily fighting among themselves ... it’s time to thin the herd.

Image credits: Politico logo: © 2011 Politico LLC. Jordan: Associated Press. Cain: Evan Vucci/Associated Press. Romney: NBC News.

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