The media call it the tea party vs. the "establishment,"...

The media call it the tea party vs. the "establishment," but this is a crude and ultimately inaccurate description. Credit: Tribune Media Services / William Brown

The immigration battle, the debate over U.S. involvement in Syria and the flap over NSA surveillance have suggested two starkly different visions of the GOP as well as two potential paths for the GOP.

The question remains whether the GOP will become the party of: Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., or Sen. Kelly Ayotte, N.H., on national security; The Gang of Eight or the Gang of Three (Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions) on immigration; Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio, or Rick Santorum on gay marriage; Broad-based appeal (e.g. Govs. Chris Christie, Gov. Scott Walker) or losing ideologues (Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Michele Bachmann).

The divide is not so much ideological as it is temperamental. The media call it the tea party vs. the "establishment," but this is a crude and ultimately inaccurate description. You can't get more "establishment" than the Heritage Foundation, and yet it doesn't align itself with Christie, Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey. There are internationalists in the tea party and in the "establishment." Instead, what we see are two conflicting visions of politics and governance. One philosophy sees its aim as furthering, albeit imperfectly, conservative goals; the other about using defiance as a springboard to higher office. One side views the country (tolerant, increasingly diverse) and the world (dangerous, populated by rogue states) as they are while the other harkens back to an imaginary bygone era of homogeneity at home and fortress America.

The sides have different definitions of what it means to be principled. One side focuses on results and accepts half of a lot of loaves while the other insists on ideological purity regardless of the outcome.

Only one side is truly "conservative" in the sense that it wants to conserve what is good while recognizing the habits, morals and desires of 21st-century America. The other is reactionary (turn back the clock) or radical (remake America, shift from superpower to sideline observer internationally).

Now, by and large, the GOP does remain the party of Christie, Walker, Rubio, etc. But conservative media that gush and mainstream media that ridicule give disproportionate attention to the party of Lee, Cruz, Angle, Paul, etc. That media hype is sometimes translated into elections, but more often than not it simply builds the expectation that the more radical candidate will win while fueling a sense of aggrievement when he or she doesn't.

Periodically this sharp divide is exposed, as has been the case in Senate elections, the immigration fight and the collapse of Plan B in the fiscal-cliff battle. The divide and relative balance of power between the sides will be tested in 2014 and 2016.

The conservatives must be fiercer, while the radicals must figure out how to avoid scaring voters and blowing themselves up when they come in contact with actual opponents. I tend to think the former is much easier than the latter, but time will tell.

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