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A Party Divided

It's not the Republicans.

11:00 PM, Dec 9, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Drenched in crocodile tears, many in the pundit class now portray the GOP as hopelessly divided by fringe groups and internal dissensions.

Democratic leaders like Virginia governor Tim Kaine eagerly fan these flames. According to Politico, he told the American Democracy Conference last week that the tea party movement and insurgent conservative candidates are "devouring" the GOP. Kaine said these divisions are "corrosive" and will prove "deadly" to the Republican party in years ahead.

Similar narratives populate left-wing commentaries about Republicans such as Sarah Palin. Writing in the New York Times, Frank Rich notes that the former Alaska governor and her "Hitler-fixated" followers will doom the Republicans in 2012.

If hyperbole sold subscriptions, Rich might single-handedly save the newspaper industry.

Poor Republicans. What's behind all this faux trepidation about the GOP's future? Actually it's a diversionary scheme, born out of panic. Democrats and liberals point fingers at the other side to draw attention away from their own divisions, which already are creating real problems and could prove politically devastating down the road.

Notwithstanding the commentary in the press, Republicans in Washington are more unified than ever. Part of it is due to their institutional position. It's easier to unify as the opposition than corral a majority in Congress. Democrats did it well between 1995 and 2006.

Republican leaders, including John Boehner of Ohio in the House and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in the Senate, understand their circumstances well. The minority party "communicates," while the majority "legislates," Boehner often reminds his colleagues. He and McConnell comprehend this subtle difference.

But GOP unity extends beyond Washington. Bob McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey won in states where Obama prevailed a year earlier without running "corrosive," ultra-conservative campaigns.

If you had to assign the label anywhere, it's the Democrats that suffer from division. Consider just a few of the current cleavages. Democrats face major divisions on the abortion issue in the health care legislation. The bill passed the House only after the chamber adopted a pro-life amendment. Some liberal House members--enough to affect the outcome--now say they won't support the bill unless the pro-life language gets stripped. Politics may trump conscience in the end, but the abortion fight will prove extremely divisive for the Democrats.

Previously hidden rifts between the Congressional Black Caucus and the White House are also exploding. Several articles over the past week underscore this. House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers of Michigan told Politico last week he is disappointed with Obama's level of attentiveness to African-American needs. The article also notes many members of the Black Caucus believe White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel often works against their interests.

The so-called Blue Dog Democrats--largely rural, more conservative House members--have their own ideological disagreements with both the White House and the bulk of their own caucus. These bitter fissures emerge regularly, but were particularly ugly this year on spending, health care, and cap and trade legislation.

Intra-party differences on the way forward in Afghanistan create even more splits within the Democratic party. Anti-war liberals are at odds with other Democrats who want to support their president. The majority will likely need Republican votes in Congress to ensure continued war funding.

These fissures are wide and deep. They span geography, ideology, and race. Democrats control all the levers of power in Washington, but they clearly don't agree on which way to pull them.

Politicians like Tim Kaine understand the perilous nature of the Democratic coalition. It's a house of cards, glued together by the slender reed of recent electoral success. And it's starting to collapse.

It's crumbling because elections are executed with rhetoric, but governing is zero-sum. Liberals want to end war funding; Blue Dogs can't afford to cut and run. Pro-life Democrats voted for health care after the abortion issue was fixed; liberals won't support the legislation unless the fix is removed. The Black Caucus says Obama caters to the Blue Dogs; but moderates feel betrayed by an ultra-left White House agenda.

It's not in the Democratic party's interest to highlight these differences. That might undermine their political and legislative momentum. Pointing the finger at alleged Republican divisions diverts attention from the real rifts--the ones tearing the Democrats apart.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.