There's a chapter-and-verse history of intra-Democratic squabbles dating back to the 1960s, when the party was famously torn apart by divisions over the war in Vietnam. Hubert Humphrey, who ran against Richard Nixon for president, never won the loyalty from the left of his party. A few years later, the squabbling between the liberal and moderate wings of the party similarly weakened Jimmy Carter's bid for reelection in 1980.
Now a seemingly obscure primary in New York State's 23rd congressional district has turned into a touchstone of similar discord within the GOP. The divide centers on whether to choose ideological purity or political pragmatism when it comes to supporting a candidate against the Democrat in the race.
The key players include:
• Dede Scozzafava, a pro-choice Republican who supported the Obama stimulus program.
• Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, whose positions are in very comfortable concert with the right wing of the Republican Party.
• Democrat Bill Owens, who must be pinching himself to make sure this isn't all a dream.
With only a few weeks to go before Election Day, the debate has revealed a rift within a party that only recently had been celebrating its unity in opposition to the administration's agenda. But the list of conservative publications calling for Scozzafava to resign so far includes the Weekly Standard, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, Red State and Big Government.com. Meanwhile, National Review is hinting that Sarah Palin may throw her support behind Hoffman. Minnesota's always entertaining Michelle Bachman is already in Hoffman's camp, telling radio show host Laura Ingraham that "Hoffman is on the ascendancy, and we have to win this seat. And people need to get behind the winning candidate, and it looks like that's Hoffman."
But former House speaker and Republican mandarin Newt Gingrich is taking the half a loaf approach. "Although some of her values do not match my own, Scozzafava will help us in our efforts to win back Congress," Gingrich wrote on his blog as he made his position on the NY23 race official. Later, he added:
"When I became Speaker of the House it was in part because we swept the 1993 elections. Three of the four Republican winners that year were moderates – significantly to the left of the conservative Republican base: Riordan was elected mayor of Los Angeles, Whitman as governor of New Jersey, and Giuliani as mayor of New York. George Allen, a conservative, was elected as governor of Virginia.
"The cumulative weight of those four victories set the stage for recruiting that enabled us to have our candidates pick up 53 seats the next year and create the first Republican majority in 40 years."
Watching from the sidelines, former Bush speechwriter-turned political pundit David Frum frets that this may turn out to be the prelude to a fratricidal fight within the Republican Party.
"From the point of view of most Republican commenters online and on the air, party loyalty is a highly variable principle. As they see it, third-party races by liberal Republicans who want to combine environmental protection with fiscal responsibility are selfish indulgences. But third-party races by conservative Republicans who want to combine pro-life appeals with their economic message? Those are completely different. Those are heroic acts of principle."
Little of this will matter if the Republicans are right and the electorate is turning more conservative. If not, get ready for some ugly post-mortems after the midterm elections chockablock with more than a little (middle) finger-pointing.