Members of the Republican Party’s political action corps pride themselves on discipline and adherence to the line. Most of the time they are very good at this, which explains to a degree their ascendancy of late. All of a sudden, however, that discipline has started to crack, and the outlines of a full-fledged civil war within the ranks of the GOP are beginning to become manifestly clear.

The public rift started several weeks ago, when Majority leaders Frist and DeLay dragged the rest of the party along on the demented sleigh-ride that was the Schiavo affair. Messrs. Frist and DeLay assumed, wrongly, that the American people would happily accept the idea that Congressmen should serve as mother, father, husband, wife, doctor and priest on matters of life and death as they pertain to medical decisions. When some 80% of the public rejected this concept out of hand, according to every poll, the cracks began to publicly appear.

This actually started as a private rift back in November. The ’movement conservatives’ - read: fundamentalist evangelical activist Christian base of the GOP - believed they were the ones who single-handedly delivered electoral victory to Bush in the last election, and were set upon being paid back for their efforts. This expected payback amounted to the assumption that the GOP majority in Congress would take up all the issues dear to the movement conservative heart.

The problem arose when a good number of the old-school conservatives within the GOP decided they didn’t really want the fundamentalists driving the bus. These old-school conservatives were likewise developing a significant disgust for the so-called leadership of the neo-conservatives in the White House and Pentagon, who had led the party into the bottomless blood-well of Iraq.

The old-schoolers were facing a significant challenge, because the neo-cons have been using the fundamentalists as shock troops, ’useful idiots’ who helpfully carry the combined banners of ’freedom,’ patriotism, and the One True Faith in order to obscure the neo-con’s larger, less-palatable and incredibly dangerous geopolitical goals. We saw this time and again during the last election season.

The tension grew as, time and again, Congress failed to rally to the various movement conservative banners that were raised. Finally, the movement conservatives got sick of waiting, and plunged headlong into the Schiavo mess in order to promote their ’culture of life’ ideals. In fact, this was a warning shot fired across the GOP’s bow, with Frist and DeLay standing as point-men for their own reasons - DeLay needs the fundamentalists help to avoid going to prison for a whole rainbow of ethics violations, and Frist needs them because he wants to run for President in 2008.

Well, history records the outcome of that effort. When the movement conservatives’ desires met public opinion on the matter of Schiavo, the sound was like two icebergs colliding in the North Atlantic. All of a sudden, the old-school conservatives found themselves lumped in with the fundies who drove the bus off the cliff. Approval ratings for Congress plummeted to the low 30s, and the Democrats had been handed an unexpected public relations coup.

Flash forward to the recent filibuster fight. Majority Leader Frist stapled himself to the cause of getting rid of the filibuster come hell or high water as yet another Schiavo-esqe kowtow to the movement conservatives whom, he believed, would catapult him into the Oval Office. The old-school conservatives watched all this unfold with growing disgust and, in a moment of Caesarian calculation, stabbed their majority leader in the back by cutting a deal with the Democrats behind Frist’s back to preserve the filibuster.

Understand what this means. For many liberals and progressives, this deal was profoundly unpalatable, because the deal itself included allowing a vote on three wildly unacceptable nominees to the appellate bench. There is no way to paint this with a rosy glow, yet the broader view may provide succor beyond the simple fact that the filibuster was preserved, and the terms under which it can be used remain in the hands of the Democrats.

Simply put, the movement conservatives had their lunch eaten by the old-schoolers on the matter of the filibuster. Mr. Frist lost control of his caucus, and the so-called ’moderates’ who broke ranks even had the temerity to scold Mr. Bush, reminding him that the Senate does, in fact, have the right and requirement to advise and consent on nominees. Furthermore, the movement fundamentalists were slapped down because they dared to tamper with Senate tradition.

This was the first public shot fired in the GOP civil war, a battle between the movementarians and the old-schoolers. Within hours, this one battle became several battles. The day after Frist lost control of his caucus, 50 GOP House members defied Bush’s promised veto and piled onto an impressive majority that passed legislation approving stem cell research. Bush, whose threatened veto was yet another political sop to the movement conservatives, expected his threat to kill this legislation, but it didn’t by a long chalk.

Suddenly, George has a problem. Stem cell research is very popular among the folks, and can help millions of Americans afflicted with a wide variety of diseases. Take diabetes for one example. There are 18.2 million Americans suffering from diabetes today, a lot of them children. According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 213,000 people will die of diabetes this year alone.

The total annual economic cost of diabetes in 2002 was estimated to be $132 billion, amounting to one out of every 10 health care dollars spent in the United States. Right now, diabetes has no cure, though the people suffering from it have been hearing for years that a cure is right around the corner. Stem cell research could provide that.

George is going to have a hell of a time explaining to these people why Jesus says they can’t be cured.
And then, of course, there was Mr. John Bolton.

Bolton’s nomination as UN Ambassador exposed yet another fault line within the GOP ranks, as seemingly loyal Republicans balked at voting for him after hearing the details of his working relationship with his peers, among other things. The seemingly guaranteed approval of Bolton has been thrown into a cocked hat, and will serve as yet another battle front between the movementarians, backed by the neo-cons, and the old-schoolers.

Beyond the filibuster brawl, Mr. Bolton and the looming stem-cell crunch is the matter of Social Security reform. Many old-school conservatives are leery of the Bush plan to overhaul this program, probably because they can do simple math. The plan, because of this resistance, has appeared dead in the water for weeks, and yet the White House keeps pushing. Bush, for his part, actually asked Republicans on Tuesday to "resist pressure from constituents" and support his plan. Big talk for a guy who doesn’t have to run again.

The lingering election beef. Schiavo. The filibuster deal, which earned the following reaction from the president of the Iowa Christian Coalition: "We’ll educate people in the caucuses, and this is not going to do them a lot of good in terms of their presidential aspirations." The stem cell fight, the 50 Republican defectors in the House, and the threatened veto. Bolton. The looming brawl over Social Security reform. The once-mighty GOP coalition is fragmenting before our very eyes.

Those who have watched the White House and Congress run roughshod over the best traditions and ideals of this nation can do two things while this fight unfolds: Sit back and enjoy the rift, or exploit it.

I vote for Option B.

The time has come to mount a bull-throated charge to get American troops out of Iraq. Eleven U.S. troops have died in the last 48 hours, bringing the total to 1,647. Billions and billions of taxpayer dollars have been poured into the sand to no avail. The public dialogue on Iraq is paralyzed, locked between those who believe we have to stay and those who think slogans like ’Out Now!" with no plans to augment the sentiment are the only proper response. It is Vietnam all over again.

Rather than leave the dialogue stuck in this rut, the time has come to develop an intelligent, effective plan for the removal of troops from Iraq and the delivery of that nation back into the hands of the people who live there. Democratic leaders Reid, Pelosi and Dean must be made to see this as the only intelligent choice. More to the point, Republican old-schoolers who are disgusted with the neo-cons and their ’useful idiot’ movementarian shock troops can be brought on board as a part of their insurgency against their rotten leaders.

Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son to this Iraq mess, knows in her heart this is possible. "Members of Congress know that Iraq is a mistake," Sheehan wrote me on Tuesday night. "I know, because I have spoken to many members of the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike, who all acknowledge that Iraq is a catastrophe. Eleven of America’s children have been senselessly killed in the last 24 hours. Hundreds have been killed since the Duelfer Report that said that Iraq had no WMD and couldn’t have had them for about a decade."

"Dozens of our nation’s children have been needlessly murdered since the ’smoking gun’ memo from Great Britain dated 23 July, 2002, was exposed at the beginning of this month," continued Sheehan.

"My son, Casey, was killed after ’Mission Accomplished’ on 01 May 2003. How many innocent Iraqis have been killed? We don’t know, because we don’t count them. It is time to end the selfish and destructive partisan politics that infect our government and are responsible for so much death and devastation in Iraq. It is time for every member of Congress to look in their hearts and cry out for an end to the immoral and illegal occupation of Iraq."

"It has been encouraging to me," continued Sheehan, "to see that conscientious Republicans have begun to split with their party line on such things as the Bolton nomination and the so-called ’nuclear option.’ It is time that Republican members of Congress break with their party and their President on the issue of Iraq, and work with like-minded Democratic members of Congress to get our troops out of the quagmire as soon as safely possible. Tragically, for too many American and Iraqi families, it is way past time."

Exploit the rift. The time is now.

Truthout Perspective