LEBANON, N.H. -- There's no denying the struggle within the Republican Party as it moves toward the first presidential primary here, tentatively scheduled for next Feb. 14. Already the party is divided every which way -- between regulars and irregulars, economic conservatives and social conservatives, established politicians and newcomers, westerners and easterners, males and females.
Republicans haven't been at each others' throats this much since … the last election.
In our historical imagination, Republicans are the sober, organized, unflappable ones. They're the party of social order and stability. That's the image. The reality is quite different.
Look back at the last century and you can count nine distinct battles for the soul of the Republican Party. Democrats, ridiculed as the disorganized and emotional pugilists in American politics, have had only four such battles, fewer than half their rivals'.
This time, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party pits three former governors, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Jon Huntsman of Utah, against each other -- and against a group of rebels that includes Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and businessman Herman Cain.
Republicans had a similar struggle in 2008, when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, only four years after he was considered a vice presidential possibility on the Democratic ticket, had almost nothing in common with his Republican rivals.
Four elections earlier, commentator Patrick Buchanan painted George H.W. Bush as effete and feckless, and indicted him for being an apostate from the true Reagan faith.
Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush played central roles in two other GOP struggles, the one that spanned the 1976 and 1980 elections (main themes: the aggressiveness of modern conservatism and the validity of supply-side economics) and the one in 1988 (main themes: whether and how the Reagan revolution would be extended, and whether and how the demands of religious conservatives should be accommodated).
Major struggles over the nature of conservatism also occurred in 1940 over Wendell Willkie's views on internationalism and in 1952, when the party's moderate and conservative wings clashed.
Perhaps the most significant GOP struggle occurred in 1964, when the Eastern Republican establishment personified by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York was challenged, and defeated, by the new Western conservatism represented by Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
Democrats' internecine battles have been less frequent but just as explosive.
The 1968 split, which continued through the 1972 election, was over Vietnam and cultural matters. It led to violent disruptions outside the Chicago convention hall and opened the door for many blue-collar voters, ardently Democratic since the New Deal, to abandon their party.
That split followed the upheavals over race in 1948, when Strom Thurmond and his allies bolted the party, and 1964. when the national convention divided over which Mississippi delegation to seat. These fights essentially involved how to deal with the differences between Democrats of the North and Democrats of the South.
The party also split in 1928 over legalized drink and the degree to which Democrats should identify themselves with immigrant families from Ireland and Eastern Europe that increasingly were becoming part of the political mainstream.
There's no obvious reason why the party of stability, as Republicans sometimes regard themselves, has had more upheaval than the party of change, which is how Democrats sometimes think of themselves. Perhaps it is because these internal struggles often precede and follow the appearance of political titans. Republicans have had two in modern times -- Dwight Eisenhower and Reagan -- while the Democratic century was dominated by one -- Franklin Roosevelt.
But both major parties have had inner contradictions. Democrats' were almost fatal: The fight between Southern conservatives and Northern liberals so divided the party that it took a generation for it to recover.
Republicans' main contradiction, between the traditional conservative yearning for stability and the modern, muscular conservatism forged in reaction to the Great Society, has not been resolved. That, more than Afghanistan policy and Mr. Romney's views on climate change, is what the 2012 primary and caucus season -- and the latest of the many fights for the soul of the Republican Party -- is really about.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: email@example.com