The whole GOP implosion is the result of a rift which simply gets wider as each day progresses.
What is going on — in case you're not following it — is a struggle between two opposing contradictory forces carried by (a) those who demand that the party remain ideologically pure and (b) those who want to make the party's tent bigger.
Call it The Purists vs. The Big Tenters.
The Purist camp is embodied best by Rush Limbaugh who argues that the GOP has lost the last two election cycles because it has catered too much to moderates, thereby weakening its appeal to the hard-core. There's nothing to support this and everything to support the opposite — even Republican pollsters agree. But that doesn't deter Rush, who is none too squeamish about purging the partyof so-called RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), as he did this week when he flatly recommended that Colin Powell "join the Democrats".
The Purist camp is also embodied by religious right groups. And although (frankly) their political clout is mediocre compared to what it once was and their ability to set the agenda is diminished, they still carry a significant amount of voters within their ranks.
The Big-Tenters are typically moderates who recognize that some of the GOP stances, particularly on social issues like gay marriage, are increasingly becoming turn-offs to the general electorate (which has moved noticeable left in the past five years), especially the younger demographic. Arlen Spector, for example, realized that the GOP is so out-of-touch with the majority of voters in his district that he would do better next election running as a Democrat. So he abandoned his party, much to the Purists' delight.
Other Big Tenters include Colin Powell, who not only is moderate on many issues, but is strongly against the Purist spokesmen, noting that people like Rush Limbaugh "diminishes the party and intrudes or inserts into our public life a kind of nastiness that we would be better to do without."
The battle lines have been drawn, and there lacks a strong GOP leader to heal the divide. So what you have are these two camps, Republicans picking sides, with a handful trying to do the impossible task of having one foot in both.
Who is winning? Right now, it looks like the Purists have the edge, especially with the defection of Spector which, although voluntary, was effectively a purge by the far right.
But the rift itselfis what is splintering the party. An example of this phenomenon can be gleaned from reading this.
How will it all play out? Well, that's the most interesting thing: it could go on for years, maybe decades. And the longer it does, the more disgruntled Republican voters will become. Disgruntled moderates will migrate slowly to the Democrats; disgruntled Purists will abandon the party in favor of the Libertarian/Ron Paul movement.
It doesn't take a genius to see that the only way the Republican Party will ever become a national party again (rather than a regional Southern-state-based party) is if it grows by reaching out to moderates. But if that happens, it will have to do so against the will of the Purists, who will defect, negating any gains that the party might have. [Even Joe the Plumber is looking to get out]
Put another way, Limbaugh is literally KILLING the party of any potential potency. By seeing to it that the GOP holds true to its far right values, he and those like him are virtually ensuring that the Republican Party become a fringe party at best.
And while this internal struggle is going on, the Republican Party cannot come forth with any new ideas or even a coherent stable message — all they can do his remain true to the tag placed on them as "the party of 'No'".
UPDATE: I'm going to expand this post based on this commentary by a former GOP congressional staffer, who cites 5 reasons why the GOP will be back "sooner than you think".
The first reason he gives is Overreach:
The Democrats are certain to overdo it on the liberalism, and that will make the Republicans much more attractive in two to four years.
I never underestimate the talents of the Democrats to screw things up and pull defeat from the jaws of victory. But this first reason lays on the shaky assumption that Americans don't likeliberalism. That may have been the case once, but that's far less a truism now. Trendlines, in fact, suggest, that most Americans lean center-left.
The second reason? Checks and balances
Unlike the parliamentary governments of Europe, where one party runs everything until they mess up, the American system actually gives a preference to both parties having skin in the game.
Actually, it doesn't. There's nothing in the constitution about political parties at all, and that is not what is meant by "checks and balances".
Most polls now show voters prefer a candidate who will serve as a check on President Obama's power.
I call bullshit. I've never seen this poll question even asked, and it's interesting that there is no cite to this bald assertion.
That said, his larger point that having one party in control leads to corruption and ineffective government may be true. But that hasn't happened yet with the Democrats, and if it does, it will be the corruption and ineffectiveness, and not some blind nebulous concern about "checks and balances", that will inure to the benefit of the GOP.
Third reason: Crisis breeds renewal
His point here is that the Republicans are in crisis, which provides the GOP (unlike the Democrats) to emerge from a phoenix from the ashes.
Quite true, but as I've noted, the search for the GOP's soul is unusually contentious for a party being out of power. It's not going to resolve itself soon.
Fourth reason: Talent senses opportunity
Talented political entrepreneurs look to the GOP and see nothing but opportunity. The old bulls have been wiped out. The new guard is ready to start leading.
I don't doubt that either, but like I say, the "new guard" can't emerge until one side or the other of this rift ultimately prevails.
Fifth and final reason: The Republican Party is the de facto Libertarian Party
Most people I talk to think of themselves not as Republicans or Democrats, but as libertarians. Not libertarians in the political party sense, but libertarians in a deeper philosophical sense. They tend to want government to stay out of their lives as much as possible. They tend to distrust all politicians, and when they hear someone say, "I am from the government, and I am here to help," they tend to laugh uproariously. It was Will Rogers who said, "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts." The Republican Party does best when it seeks to reform government, to lessen the power of the bureaucrat, and to fight to give more freedom to the people. When the GOP returns to that philosophical creed — which it will do in the face of the Obama administration's vast expansion of government power — its fortunes will brighten again.
I'll be generous and grant the premise, but the problem is in real-world applications of that libertarian philosophy. A party which claims to want government out of people's lives can't simultaneously have be anti-choice on abortion, or fight against gay marriage. Yet, a significant number of Republicans won't stay within the party with those issues being taken off the agenda.
That's the schizophrenic problem facing Republicans today — it can't be, on the one hand, a party which wants government out of people's lives… AND — at the same time — be a party which intends to use the heavy hand of government to impose a certain vision of "family values" on the people. That's a fundamental philosophical contradiction. And I don't see any sign of that contradiction being resolved in the near future.