It has long been said that any political coalition large enough to aspire to majority status is an organization of factions, conflict and contradictions. That description defines the Republican Party as it looks toward the November elections and beyond.
This was a week in which the party's strengths and weaknesses competed for attention. Turnout in Tuesday's primaries showed Republicans energized and enthusiastic, far more so than the Democrats. If anything, Democrats are more pessimistic about their prospects in November than they were two months ago.
But the elections last week in Florida and Alaska also pointed to ideological differences and personal enmities that have played out in Republican primary battles all year and that threaten to leave scars and fissures within the party that will have to be dealt with later. Republicans have seen more turmoil in their ranks this year than Democrats have, a sign of both robustness within the coalition and unresolved debates about the party's direction.
On another front, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) went to his home state and made his first attempt at offering a GOP agenda for the fall campaigns, an essential - and until now, largely missing - element of the party's message.
But Boehner's speech left many questions unanswered about what his party would do if Republicans win a majority of seats in November. How radically would they attack government spending? How bold would they be in dealing with entitlements, beyond the grown-up conversation that Boehner promises? How much effort would they make to work with President Obama compared with the past two years?
The party's agenda is not the only question mark hanging over Republicans. The party's leadership remains in question. Who now truly drives the party: the establishment or the grass roots? There is considerable evidence that power has shifted to the activists and that the Washington establishment is still scrambling to catch up.
At CNN, Julian Zelizer sees four main factions:
- Economic conservatives
- Social conservatives;
- National-security conservatives
He says that Reagan united the various GOP factions in the 1980s. Although the Gipper did escape a primary challenge in 1984, Zelizer overlooks the intense infighting that characterized GOP politics during this period. The president faced strong House GOP opposition over the 1982 and 1985 tax bills, for instance. Zelizer also says: "None of the main Republican contenders for 2012 -- Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney or any others -- has demonstrated that he or she would be able to build a coalition from these factions." He forgets Barbour's RNC chairmanship, when he indeed built good relations with all party factions.