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Commentary: Elephants at War

For many years, there was a big difference between the two major parties when it came to their internal affairs. Democrats often didn’t get along behind closed doors and on convention floors.  And they often didn’t mind letting their disagreements show. Nor did their intra-party brawls usually seem to hurt them. That’s because the Democrats were a collection of different interest groups who didn’t necessarily like each other very much.

Hard-hat labor unions didn’t much care for wine-sipping, heads-in-the-clouds liberals from places like Ann Arbor. Blue-collar white workers didn’t feel much of a sense of kinship with blacks.

But what united them all is that they hated Republicans even more. And most of the time, after a certain amount of bloodletting, the Democrats came together around whatever candidates survived the primary and convention gauntlet in any given year.

Republicans, however, were different. They saw their party as more of a family, possibly because there was less ethnic, intellectual, and life-style differences among Republicans.

They were a group of similar folks, heavily white and Christian, most of whom could pass for family. And families believe in keeping their dirty linen private, and the crazy aunts locked away. In the old days, whenever serious disagreements between Republicans exploded into the media, the party was traumatized.

Ronald Reagan dealt with this by promoting what he called the “Eleventh Commandment,” which was, simply, “thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” I can remember conservative Michigan Republicans who really loathed their liberal governor, William Milliken, but who were unwilling to say a public word against him.

Well, the world has changed. Last weekend, term-limited State Representative Dave Agema beat former GOP state chairman Saul Anuzis for a seat on the Republican National Committee after a campaign that seemed more like a knife fight.

Anuzis flooded the internet with denunciations of the Agenma team, primarily political consultant John Yob, for allegedly lying about him and distorting his record.

For his part, Yob booed loudly at last weekend’s GOP state convention every time Anuzis’s name was mentioned. Nor did he limit his comments to the race for committeeman. He then began an attack on the current GOP state chairman, Bobby Schostak, saying of Schostak’s supporters, “the stupidity of these morons is unbearable.” He pledged to try to oust the current party leadership.

What all this means for Republican candidates this fall is not clear, but can’t be especially good. The main job these days of a party chairman is to raise money -- and there are hints the internecine wars may well hurt those efforts.

There are also those who wonder whether selecting Agema is a good strategy for a party that desperately needs to reach out to moderates. The new GOP national committeeman has been rated the legislature’s most conservative member, and is perceived as openly hostile to gays and Muslims. However, it is also true that his position isn’t an especially visible one. What is certain is that the last time a Republican Presidential candidate carried Michigan, the nation’s most important foreign policy issue was the Soviet Union.

Since Watergate, Michigan Republicans have won precisely one election for the U.S. Senate. What’s going on now in their party may not be fatal. But it doesn’t do anything to help.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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