Why the Fiscal Cliff Is Causing a Nervous Breakdown on the Right

The post-election recriminations are getting heated. Howard Kurtz on why the GOP is at war with itself.

It’s no surprise, after losing a second time to Barack Obama, that the right is engaged in a furious debate over the future of the Republican Party.

But it’s quickly degenerating into a mudfight.

“Conservatism is a racket for a lot of people to get very, very rich,” declares Joe Scarborough on MSNBC. “With no thought of winning elections.”

“It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary,” says William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard.

What’s going on here? Is this simply the venting of prominent media folks who are tired of seeing their side taken to the cleaners? Or have they concluded that the talk-show/fundraising culture that powers the GOP has become more interested in feathering its nest than electing Republicans?

Just two years ago, the GOP captured the House, the Tea Party was ascendant, and the rank and file had every reason to believe that Obama would be a one-termer. Now the reelected president, having vanquished Mitt Romney, is all but dictating terms on averting the fiscal cliff. No wonder the right seems to be undergoing a collective nervous breakdown.

Newt Gingrich sounded less than confident on Meet the Press when the talk turned to Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. “The Republican Party today is incapable of competing at that level,” said the man who proved incapable of beating Romney.

Scarborough’s analysis on Morning Joe: “You have a lot of people running around, saying harsh things that sell books and push ratings and lose elections.”

And those who try to promote a more compassionate brand of conservatism, says the former Florida congressman, are “thrown to the side because they don’t sound enough like Glenn Beck or a blogger.” He described these adversaries as “cowards” and “bullies” who won’t back off unless “you punch them in the face.”

Kristol, who has committed the apostasy of saying the GOP should stop protecting a bunch of millionaires from tax hikes, describes the conservative movement as being “in deep disarray.”

He’s also in a spat with The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which took a shot at Kristol (without naming him): “Various Beltway sages want Republicans to say never mind, we were only kidding, tax rates don’t matter to the economy. So because Mitt Romney lost, Republicans in Congress are supposed to repudiate their core economic principles.”

The Journal says that House Republicans still have leverage, and that if we slide off the fiscal cliff and everyone’s taxes go up on Jan. 1, the GOP will still have the clout to negotiate a deal with Obama, who may fear that trench warfare will ruin his final term. Kristol responds with an obvious counter-argument: that if House Republicans block legislation to restore tax breaks to 98 percent of Americans in a last-ditch attempt to protect the richest 2 percent, “it will be they, and they alone, insisting on higher taxes.” Not a great position to be defending in 2014.

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This growing divide extends to the Hill, where more GOP lawmakers—the latest being two senators, Bob Corker and Tom Coburn—are saying they are open to raising rates as part of a deal with the Democrats.

But that erosion among the Grover Norquist pledge-signers is generating significant pushback. Erick Erickson, the founder of RedState, says the Boehner wing of the party is convinced that the conservative movement has become a “paper tiger,” and that true believers have to “either start blowing things up or shut up.”

The movement is doing a pretty good job of blowing itself up at the moment. Former allies are sniping at each other, not just over tactics but over fundamental beliefs about what conservatism means and what Republicans should stand for.

Rush Limbaugh, one of the most powerful voices on the right, is also perturbed. In his monologue Monday, posted under the heading “The Comical Floundering of the GOP,” El Rushbo describes the theory that “the Republican Party has been doing new Coke, but gradually. We have been caving on the things that identify us.” In case anyone missed the point, he adds: “The Republican Party, nobody knows what it is anymore. Whatever it used to be, it’s changing the formula.”

What should be the new and improved Republican flavor? The dilemma goes beyond taxes and spending to such issues as immigration, where the likes of Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer say the party should restore its standing with Hispanics by embracing amnesty or something close to it. Here too, Limbaugh and many others strongly disagree.

And what about gay marriage, now headed for the Supreme Court? The right has been awfully quiet about that, despite the dire predictions when Obama embraced the principle of same-sex marriage last spring. As conservative commentator George Will bluntly noted on This Week, “Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.”

Romney’s retreat from the public stage, except for the occasional sighting at Disneyland or a Las Vegas prizefight, obviously created a GOP vacuum. One day, Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Chris Christie may lead the party in a different direction. But with Obama not even having been sworn in for a second term, that day is far off. Instead, Republicans are groping for answers as the slow march toward the fiscal cliff leaves them ever more divided.