CPAC the Next Battleground in the Right's Civil War

But the wrath of the base has also been directed at reliably conservative governors like Rick Scott of Florida and John Kasich of Ohio. Their transgression was agreeing to the expansion of Medicaid in their states and the acceptance of federal cash to pay for it. Their reasons were probably both fiscal and political: you don't turn down billions in federal funds to help your citizens get insurance (especially since the alternative would have been a great many of those insureds ending up in emergency rooms uninsured, with the state liable for the tab). It's also noteworthy that Barack Obama carried Florida and Ohio and both Scott and Kasich must run for re-election in 2014.

To the base, this is betrayal, not pragmatic governance. But conservative governors around the country are making similar compromises while slashing budgets and cutting taxes in an effort to spur economic growth. Accepting Obamacare cash is giving them the flexibility to cut their health care costs and apply the savings to create an inviting economic climate that will bring businesses and jobs into their states.

It's a formula for electoral success -- a point that appears lost on those conservatives who believe purity is preferable to winning. Ramesh Ponnuru, writing for Bloomberg View, asks whether conservatives were interested in winning elections and policy battles anymore. After citing the Christie CPAC snub, the effort to defeat Chuck Hagel, and a threat to primary House members who failed to vote on a more radical budget proposal than Paul Ryan's plan, Punnuru writes:

In each of these episodes, some Republicans have seemed to dislike one another more than they like defeating Democrats and enacting conservative policies. After elections in which conservatives attracted the allegiance of only a minority of voters, they have reacted by trying to kick people out rather than bring people in. (You can see the same impulse at work among Republican critics of religious conservatives.)

Indeed, Karl Rove's effort to vet GOP candidates, testing them for what he considers their chances of winning, is equally self-defeating and recklessly imprudent. Rove and his rich friends, sitting in Washington or New York or California, have little idea of what it takes to win a congressional race in Texas or North Carolina. And if they can divine the future and predict if a candidate will say something goofy or make a major gaffe, then they should probably be picking stocks or playing the ponies rather than telling the rest of the party who they should be running in primaries.

Some mistake Rove's effort as a bid to quash "true" conservatives and hand-pick candidates who will water down the message. Rove is not stupid. He knows his candidates need the support of the Tea Party to win. More to the point, rather than weakening the message, Rove and the reformers in the establishment are seeking to recalibrate a conservative narrative so that it speaks to ordinary people in much the same way that the Democrats have recalibrated liberalism.

If you listen to a Democrat on national television today, you are struck with how they frame every issue they address. In addition to "the family," "the middle class," and "the children," there is an overall theme of "community" the permeates their rhetoric -- the notion that "we're all in this together."

It's a mirage, but an effective one. They couch their radical ideas in the comforting words of moderation and unity. President Obama has mastered this narrative and, coupled with the general incoherence on the right, has been able to portray conservatives as the antithesis of community -- selfish, greedy, out for the rich or for themselves.

Conservatism is organized around  a set of principles. There is no issue, no personality, no feud, no difference in temperament, region, or habits of mind that can alter that fact. How those principles are perceived is where the schism occurs. The divisions on the right are wholly the result of a refusal by all sides to grant legitimacy to how conservative principles are interpreted and put into practice by others. And the divisions are made worse by the urge to purge those who don't adhere to a particular orthodoxy that purports to represent the one, true conservative vision.

There won't be anything coherent coming out of CPAC. Perhaps the right is destined to wander in the political wilderness until brought to its senses by either electoral disaster or a strong leader. Most would prefer the latter.

Don't miss Next Generation's members-only coverage of CPAC 2013 -- featuring former Congressman Allen West and Michelle Fields. Click here to learn more.