Joe notes Andrew Sullivan’s prediction about a civil war within the GOP (or among conservatives, if you like). On the one hand, almost any prediction in politics is worth making because there is always some chance that a prediction may come true. On the other, there is only a very slim chance that Sullivan’s prediction (or wish) will come to be. His assumptions are wrong. No ordinary citizen (that is, one without a Ph.D., or a non-pundit) is really concerned with these weird distinctions between paleo- and neo-conservatives, or even much between libertarians and social conservatives. Besides, a civil war among Democrats is much more likely than one between Republicans, but even the Democratic civil war will be put off until after their 2008 loss.
Since 9/11 especially, the main issue that citizens have been concerned with and moved by has to do with trust. And that trust is especially (albeit, not solely) given to Bush and the GOP because of the war on terror. And I don’t mean by this that the people trust Bush in how he carries out the war on terror. The basis of the trust is something much more fundamental. This is not a small point, and Sullivan above all should understand it. The people know (or sense, if you like) that there is a dividing issue between the parties on something like a fundamental principle, and that principle has to do with what it is the country stands for, and why it is worth fighting for (it is not on how the war is being fought, that is a technical issue). In the voters mind (rightly, I think) this question of what we are as a country and a people is connected to what are loosely called social issues. Not unimportant questions (like the size of government, fiscal policy, etc.) take a back seat to this massive fact having to do with fundamental principles. The so called policy questions, from Social Security to the deficit, are deeply affected by the fundamentals. Sullivan, oddly perhaps, given that everyone used to think he was a smart guy, has forgotten this. As one commentator
says, Sullivan has become deeply confused ideologically. I should add that it is because Bush is not confused--and that is why he acts and talks in such an authoritative and confident manner--that is a special irritant to his opponents. Hence they call him arrogant and keep asking him to admit to mistakes he has made. This works entirely to Bush’s advantage because his manner and mode show citizens that he is firm in his stand on principle. This is no small accomplishment for a president; it is the basis of his political capital.
Bush and the GOP talk and act as if they are representing the ground of a political consensus; they are acting as if they represent the majority, and indeed even a long term majority (as in a realignment). This is extremely frustrating to their opponents and since they themselves cannot come to some sound representation of a principle, they are acting out the negative in politics. And this will go on through the 2006 elections, and will last until after they lose the presidency yet again in 2008. Then they will have their civil war, and it will last about twenty years. They are now bent on putting that off because they do not yet believe any of this. They still think that Bush’s victories (and the GOP’s victories) are mistakes. They think that the majority is still with them. This explains some of their outrageous statements, the most recent example is
Howard Dean calling the Republicans "brain dead."
This also explains Sullivan’s hope that there will be a civil war within the GOP. That there will be disagreements (indeed, there are disagreements already) within the party goes without saying. But none of those disagreements will come to the level of a principled division, at least not this soon after they have formed the new ground of consensus. Besides, if such a major division will come, it will likely come on an issue that might surprise Sullivan and his ideological soul-mates. It will not come on the war on terror, or even foreign policy broadly understood. It is likely to come on questions having to do with immigration, especially illegal immigration. While it is true that illegal immigration, or control of our borders, if you prefer, is related to the war on terror, it is in fact closer to the fundamental question of who we are as a people, and how citizens should be made in this human rights republic. This will be the hardest nut to crack. But it is not likely to lead to a civil war. But Sullivan doesn’t see this, being so preoccupied with his own interests and with "policy" issues narrowly understood. Sullivan is wrong: The Republicans already had their civil war, Barry Goldwater won the first battle, the victories continued with Reagan, and culminated with the two elections of George W. Bush. The GOP will only be inclined to re-think itself, and go to war with itself, if it takes many poundings in many elections over a long period of time. And that is unlikely for a generation; first the Democrats have to go through their civil war, and they havent started yet.