In 1831, Henry Clay formed a new political party. He called it the Whig Party. His goal was to ensure Jeffersonian democracy and fight President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat. Over the course of the next 20 years, the Whig Party achieved several presidential victories. But as slavery assumed more and more national importance in the political debate, the Whig Party began to shatter. Southern Whigs were slave owners; Northern Whigs were industrial gurus who hated slavery. In 1849, the Illinois Whig leader, one Abraham Lincoln, quit politics completely in frustration with the party's inability to come together. With the Compromise of 1850, in which Whig leaders strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act on the one hand and admitted California as a free state on the other, the Whig Party was fractured beyond repair.
In 1852, the anti-slavery faction of the Whig Party prevented the nomination of the incumbent, controversial president, Millard Fillmore; the party settled on a compromise choice, the bland, boring and elderly Gen. Winfield Scott. He lost in dramatic fashion to the handsome, young cipher Franklin Pierce. In 1854, with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Whigs were irrevocably split. Northern Whigs joined the Republican Party. Southern Whigs vanished.
By 1860, Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States -- as a Republican.
Why tell this story? Because the party of Lincoln seems about to splinter the same way its predecessor did.
The center of the Republican Party cannot hold. With Mitt Romney's victory in the Florida primary, it's clear that large swaths of the Republican establishment have rejected the Tea Party; it's similarly clear that the Tea Party has largely rejected Romney and his backers. While Republicans hope that the party will unite behind Romney in opposition to President Obama, that hope seems strained. Democrats, optimists think, fought a brutal Hillary vs. Obama battle in 2008, then united to defeat Republicans. They forget, however, that the Hillary vs. Obama battle was not so much a battle over message as a battle over messenger. More than anything, it was a fight over whether to push for the first black president or the first female president. When it came to ideology, however, Obama and Hillary were virtually identical.
The same is not true within the Republican Party. On what basis will the party unite? On fiscal responsibility? Romney and his cohorts have said nothing about serious entitlement reform; the Tea Party, meanwhile, calls for it daily. On taxation? Romney has a 59-point plan that smacks of class warfare; the Tea Party wants broad tax cuts across the board. On health care? Romney and much of the establishment aren't against the individual mandate in principle; the Tea Party despises the individual mandate as a violation of Constitutionally-guaranteed liberties. On foreign policy? Paleoconservatives want a Ron Paul-like isolationism; neoconservatives want a George W. Bush-like interventionism; realists want something in between.
There is the very real potential for the Republican Party to spin apart in the near future. It could easily become a set of regional parties knit together by opposition to extreme liberalism. Chris Christie and his followers don't have all that much in common with Rick Perry and his followers. Never has that chasm been so obvious.
The Republican Party is like a bed of nails. It works so long as the nails are relatively close together -- but as the nails are moved further apart, the chances of winding up spiked from head to toe grow. Right now, the nails are too far apart. The Republican Party is about to be cut to shreds, even as the establishment declares victory over those redneck insurgents from the Tea Party. Romney's victory may very well end up being pyrrhic for the GOP in the end.