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A party at the crossroads

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In the mid-1970s, the Republican Party had fallen on such hard times, there was a fair amount of talk about it changing its name. The argument was that the Republican brand had been tarnished so badly -- it was associated with Watergate, country clubs, and the Great Depression -- that it might just be better to start over with some other name.

We now know, of course, that this wasn't necessary, and by 1981, the party at the national level was thriving once more. But it's not unreasonable to wonder if the Republican Party is in even worse shape now.

John Judis has an interesting item in The New Republic today, noting among other things what happened when he reached out to Republican insiders this week to discuss the effects of the shutdown.

The response I got was fear of Republican decline and loathing of the Tea Party: One lobbyist and former Hill staffer lamented the "fall of the national party," another the rise of "suburban revolutionaries," and another of "people alienated from business, from everything." There is a growing fear among Washington Republicans that the party, which has lost two national elections in a row, is headed for history's dustbin. And I believe that they are right to worry.

The battle over the shutdown has highlighted the cracks and fissures within the party. The party's leadership has begun to lose control of its members in Congress. The party's base has become increasingly shrill and is almost as dissatisfied with the Republican leadership in Washington as it is with President Obama. New conservative groups have echoed, and taken advantage of, this sentiment by targeting Republicans identified with the leadership for defeat. And a growing group of Republican politicians, who owe their election to these groups, has carried the battle into the halls of Congress. That is spelling doom for the Republican coalition that has kept the party afloat for the last two decades.

This may seem a little hyperbolic, but given recent developments -- in polling, within the party, from outside groups allied with the party -- the GOP's fractures aren't quite normal.

Indeed, while much of the focus of late has been on a dispute between congressional Republicans and the White House, this only tells part of the story. It's actually a fight with multiple axes -- a Democratic president vs. congressional Republicans, and Republicans against themselves.

Jon Chait had a good piece on this earlier.

Conservative activists and the party's pro-business Establishment have split more deeply and rapidly than anybody expected. It is startling to see the head of the National Federation of Independent Businesses -- a group so staunchly partisan and conservative that liberals had to form a competing small business lobby -- deliver quotes in public like this: "There clearly are people in the Republican Party at the moment for whom the business community and the interests of the business community -- the jobs and members they represent -- don't seem to be their top priority." The mutual recriminations run in both directions, with figures like the conservative organizer Erick Erickson muttering threats to form a third party.

Intra-party schisms have a long history in American politics. But they are usually rooted in policy -- the Republicans splitting half a century ago over progressivism and the role of government, the Democrats slowly rending a half century ago over white supremacy. Mainstream Republicans and the tea party have fallen out almost entirely over political tactics.

If anything, I think Jon's probably understating the case. There are clearly strategic differences -- some Republicans are reluctant to compromise, while other Republicans consider compromise to be a horrible crime that must never be committed -- that have led GOP officials to shut down the government and threaten a sovereign debt crisis for reasons they can neither identify nor explain.

But these differences over tactics are compounded by disagreement over policy and direction. Republican policymakers and their allies are divided on immigration and the culture war, for example, and have reached the point at which the party no longer really has a foreign policy consensus.

Big Business and the Tea Party are at odds, as are libertarians and social conservatives, as are the House GOP and the Senate GOP. It's a party with no leaders, no elder statesmen (or women), and an older, white base in an increasingly diverse nation.

For generations, parties see their power and popularity ebb and flow, and in a two-party system, it's hard to imagine Republicans staying down indefinitely. But in the post-Civil War era, we haven't seen a party quite as radical as today's GOP, and we haven't seen many parties with quite so many internal and external crises to deal with all at once.

There are no easy fixes for a quagmire this severe.