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July 5, 2015

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Suicide conservatives’

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There used to be a political truism: Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line.

That’s no longer true. Not in this moment. Democrats have learned to fall in love and fall in line. Republicans are just falling apart.

Last week, the opening salvos were launched in a very public and very nasty civil war between establishment Republicans and Tea Party supporters when it was reported that Karl Rove was backing a new group, the Conservative Victory Project, to counter the Tea Party’s selection of loopy congressional candidates who lose in general elections.

The Tea Party was having none of it. It sees Rove’s group as a brazen attack on the Tea Party movement, which it is. Rove sees winning as a practical matter. The Tea Party counts victory in layers of philosophical purity.

Politico reported this week that an unnamed “senior Republican operative” said that one of the party’s biggest problems was “‘suicide conservatives, who would rather lose elections than win seats with moderates.’”

Democrats could be the ultimate beneficiaries of this tiff. Of the 33 Senate seats up for election in 2014, 20 are held by Democrats. Seven of those 20 are in states that President Barack Obama lost in the last presidential election. Republicans would have to pick up only a handful of seats to take control of the chamber.

But some in the Tea Party are threatening that if their candidate is defeated in the primaries by a candidate backed by Rove’s group, they might still run the Tea Party candidate in the general election. That would virtually guarantee a Democratic victory.

Sal Russo, a Tea Party strategist, told Politico: “We discourage our people from supporting third-party candidates by saying, ‘That’s a big mistake. We shouldn’t do that.’” “But if the position (Rove’s allies) take is rule or ruin — well, two can play that game. And if we get pushed, we’re not going to be able to keep the lid on that.”

The skirmish speaks to a broader problem: a party that has lost its way and can’t rally around a unified, coherent vision of what it wants to be when it grows up.

The traditional Republican message doesn’t work. Rhetorically, the GOP is the party of calamity. The sky is always falling. Everything is broken. Freedoms are falling. Tomorrow is dimmer than today.

In Republicans’ world, we must tighten our belts until we crush our spines. We must take a road to prosperity that runs through the desert of austerity. We must cut to grow. Republicans are the last guardians against bad governance.

But how can they sell this message to a public that has rejected it in the past two presidential elections?

Some suggest keeping the terms but softening the tone.

A raft of Republicans, many of them possible contenders in 2016, have been trying this approach.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, speaking at a Republican National Committee meeting last month, chastised his party for being “the stupid party” that’s “in love with zeros,” even as he insisted, “I am not one of those who believe we should moderate, equivocate or otherwise abandon our principles.”

Jindal’s plan, like that of many other Republicans, boils down to two words: talk differently.

Other Republicans, such as Marco Rubio, seem to want to go further. They understand that the party must behave differently. He is among a group of senators who recently put forward a comprehensive immigration proposal that would offer a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country.

This is a position Democrats have advocated, and it’s a position Republicans have to accept if they want Hispanic support — and a chance of winning a presidential election.

The Tea Party crowd did not seem pleased with that plan. Glenn Beck, the self-described “rodeo clown” of the right, said:

“You’ve got John McCain, Lindsey Graham and now Marco Rubio joining them because Marco Rubio just has to win elections. I’m done. I’m done. Learn the Constitution. Somebody has to keep a remnant of the Constitution alive.”

For Beck’s wing of the party, moderation is surrender and surrender is death. It seems to want to go further out on a limb that’s getting ever more narrow. For that crowd, being a Tea Party supporter is more a religion than a political philosophy. They believe so deeply and fervently in it that they see no need for either message massage or actual compromise.

Although most Democrats and independents want politicians to compromise, Republicans don’t, according to a January report by the Pew Research Center. The zealots have a chokehold on that party, and they’re sucking the life — and common sense — out of it.

For this brand of Republican, there is victory in self-righteous defeat.

Charles M. Blow writes for The New York Times.

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