Conservatives with long memories had to laugh at the recent New York Times front-page headline: "Fiscal Crisis Sounds the Charge in GOP's 'Civil War.'"
That diagnosis largely hangs on the judgment of 1970s New Right direct-mail impresario Richard Viguerie, whose ears have been ringing with the thunder of Fort Sumter for a quarter-century.
Within a week of Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration, Viguerie was denouncing the Gipper as a traitor to the cause. The Associated Press ran a story headlined "Conservatives Angry With Reagan." Viguerie was the centerpiece: "Almost every conservative I have talked to in the last two months has been disappointed in the initial appointments to the Reagan Cabinet."
By July of that year, the Washington Post ran a news story, "For Reagan and the New Right, the Honeymoon Is Over," which included many anti-Reagan barbs. After the 1990 midterms, Viguerie told USA Today, "You just heard the opening shots of a civil war within the Republican Party."
Then again, just because Viguerie is predicting something doesn't mean he's wrong. I've always loved the story of the British intelligence officer whose career spanned the first half of the 20th century: "Year after year the worriers and fretters would come to me with awful predictions of the outbreak of war. I denied it each time. I was only wrong twice."
In 1984, Viguerie wrote a book, "The Establishment vs. the People," that could probably be republished today with only a few edits. Viguerie touted "conservative populism," while the vogue today is "libertarian populism." Ideologically, the key difference is that conservative populists believed the left was the true enemy, while libertarian populism takes dead aim at big government, whether run by Democrats or Republicans.
But the more important distinctions aren't philosophical. Whereas the old game of attacking even very conservative Republicans as sellouts was something of a direct-mail fundraising racket, the new cause is more like a real movement.
And that's why this time the infighting might lead to real war. For starters, the populists are much better funded and organized. Despite liberal doomsaying that Citizens United would give corporations a stranglehold over politics, we've seen the influence of big business decline in the GOP as new populist PACs have declared war on what they believe is the K Street wing of the party.