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Are we on the verge of a conservative crackup?

Over the years, I’ve read plenty of claims that we’re witnessing a “crackup” of liberals or conservatives (or sometimes both at the same time). Normally, I react by rolling my eyes. For me, “crackup” claims are a almost always hack way of expressing unjustified triumphalism.

But now I think I see a crackup. Given the scandal-a-week Obama administration, you might think that the crackup, if any, is looming on the left. But that would be to ignore the left’s tendency to march more or less in lockstep through any scandal or storm.

No, the crackup I see coming is among conservatives. The evidence consists of the emergence of important “wedge” issues and the rhetoric surrounding them.

Consider three such issues: immigration, foreign policy, and national security. On immigration, as I see it, the Republican establishment is pushing through amnesty legislation that most conservatives strongly disapprove of. John McCain considers the legislation necessary to eliminate the national stain that results from exploiting illegal immigrants. Marco Rubio’s operatives characterize opposition to it as anti-life. David Brooks (if he still counts as a conservative) seems to deem it borderline anti-American.

Meanwhile, opponents like me perceive the push for amnesty and a path to citizenship as a selling out of the future of limited government conservatism in the name of marginal short term electoral gain. In other words, the height of unprincipled and foolish opportunism.

Next consider foreign policy. Here the fissure is most evident when it comes to Syria. The rhetoric hasn’t really heated up, but the potential is there. Those who favor active U.S. involvement view inaction as a recipe for (1) genocide and (2) a major victory of Hezbollah and Iran. Those who want us to remain on the sidelines view intervention as a recipe for handing another victory to Islamists and, indeed, to al Qaeda’s fellow travelers. If these are the stakes, the disagreement is liable to become quite nasty.

Finally, there is the division over our approach to preventing terrorism. The dispute about drones, especially domestic ones, had the air of farce to it, but the dispute over NSA data collection seems dead serious. Opponents see a major breach of the Constitution and an impending threat to our freedom. Supporters ridicule these concerns.

Today, Michael Gerson went so far as to accuse Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin of being “dishonest” and “dishonorable” in their opposition to the NSA program. Not wrong, as I believe they are, but dishonest and dishonorable.

As strong as this rhetoric is, I’m not in a good position to criticize it. After all, I would apply the same words — dishonest and dishonorable — to Marco Rubio, given his serial false claims about the Schumer-Rubio immigration legislation and the smears his operatives have leveled against conservatives who oppose it.

Will conservatives become more conciliatory as we move forward? Possibly, but I doubt it. If anything, many of us will become more angry if illegal aliens are rewarded with amnesty and a path to citizenship (as I believe they probably will be). And the Syria dilemma isn’t going away.

Finally, let’s remember that core budgetary issues — the ones that preoccupied conservatives earlier this year — haven’t been resolved. Divisions between debt hawks and those more inclined to reach a “grand bargain” with Democrats may well resurface, this time in the context of intense anger over other matters.

So roll your eyes if you like, but I believe that we may well be on the verge of a conservative crackup, one that could become particularly manifest in 2015 when Republicans begin in earnest the process of selecting a presidential nominee.

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