A propos of my earlier post on the Times poll and the deep unpopularity of the Republican party, I was trying to think of a framework that captured the no-enemies-on-the-right dynamic that seems to be pushing the GOP further and further into the political wilderness. And while the metaphor is far from exact, I think there's some level on which the leaders of the GOP--not only in elected office, but in the media as well--are behaving like candidates in a contested primary all the time.
Take the House. John Boehner knows that he's exceedingly unlikely to become Speaker in the foreseeble future, and that if the opportunity somehow arises, it will be due to events beyond his control--an economic collapse, a terrorist attack, etc. On a fundamental level, he's not competing with Nancy Pelosi, but with Eric Cantor and Mike Pence and any other party rivals eager to displace him. As in a contested primary, the dynamic generally pushes away from the center, but here particularly so, because a) the moderate wing of the House GOP has basically ceased to exist; and b) none of these guys is likely to be in a position to influence Democratic legislation in any substantial way any time soon. Everyone tries to outflank everyone else to the right--zero votes on any Obama-supported bill! a hyperconservative budget with no numbers! a hyperconservative budget with made-up numbers!--because there's no obvious, non-heretical way to establish yourself as a player otherwise. Denied the opportunity to govern (by their own intransigence as much as by the size of the Democratic majority), they have nothing to do but campaign 24/7.
The Senate is somewhat different of course, but not entirely different. How much higher is Jim DeMint's profile since getting nearly the entire party to endorse his "stimulus" vision of trillions of dollars of upper-bracket tax cuts? Does Mitch McConnell worry more about a leadership challenge from the left or from the right?
If anything, the competition among conservative media stars--a few of whom wield more influence than the parties' titular leaders--is probably worse. Sean Hannity isn't worried that Alan Colmes is somehow going to come back and take his job away. He's worried that Glenn Beck will--and with good reason. Again, there's no percentage here in being reasonable: It's not like any of these commentators has aspirations of becoming an anchor at, say, ABC News. They have their own conservatives-only playing field, and the way to run up the score--i.e., the ratings--is to be more hysterically partisan (in Beck's case, literally) than the next guy. A run-of-the-mill right-wing blowhard like Bill O'Reilly can barely keep his name in the news in a conservative media environment like this one.
Eventually an opportunity will come along for the GOP to retake the reins of political power, and some figures within the party will rediscover the virtues of (at least relative) moderation. But for now, Republican leaders are behaving much like primary opponents with no general election in sight, competing with one another to amass as much of the party's eroding turf--House leadership positions, Fox News airtime--as they can.