WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party, which should have the wind at its back, enters 2014 in disarray bordering on open warfare.
President Obama and the Democrats have had, let's face it, a bumpy few months. The debut of the Affordable Care Act was not quite the hair-pulling, garment-rending, world-historical disaster that some critics claim, but it was -- and remains -- messy enough to buff the shine on the GOP's badly tarnished brand.
A CNN poll released Thursday found that 49 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer to be represented by a Republican in Congress, while 44 percent favored a Democrat. That's not much of a margin, but it's a big change from two months ago when 50 percent preferred a Democrat and just 42 percent preferred a Republican.
Such "generic" polls are of limited use in predicting what will happen in November. But the numbers do suggest that the GOP is back in the game. Voters appear willing to listen to what the party has to say.
If only the GOP had a message.
There is one proposition on which the party's warring factions agree: "We don't like Obama's Affordable Care Act." But there is a lack of consensus, to put it mildly, on how this visceral dislike of a president and his signature policy initiative should translate into concrete political action.
For Republicans -- to invert a classic George W. Bush bon mot -- Obamacare has somehow become a divider, not a uniter. In a year when the GOP may have a legitimate chance of capturing the Senate, several primary contests appear likely to devolve into bloody battles over Obama's health care reforms -- not whether to oppose them, but how.
In Georgia, for example, one of the leading candidates to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss is Rep. Jack Kingston. He has voted repeatedly -- and fruitlessly -- with his House Republican colleagues to defund the Affordable Care Act. But when he suggested last month that to "just step back and let this thing fall to pieces on its own" was not "the responsible thing to do," opponents quickly attacked Kingston as some kind of quisling who was waving a flag of surrender.
In fact, Kingston was simply acknowledging reality. Obamacare is the law. Memories of the program's incompetent launch will fade. Republicans are going to have to decide whether to collaborate in making the Affordable Care Act work better -- or risk being seen as working against the nation's best interests.
On a range of issues, this is the party's essential dilemma. Ideologues want to continue the practice of massive, uncompromising resistance to anything Obama tries to accomplish. Pragmatists want the GOP to demonstrate that it can be reasonable and trustworthy, on the theory that voters want their government to function well and won't put a bunch of anti-government extremists in charge of running it.
Keep in mind that despite the findings of that CNN poll, other surveys show the GOP still has a ton of work to do. A recent Wall Street Journal poll reported that 48 percent of respondents had "negative feelings" toward the Republican Party, as opposed to 39 percent who felt negatively toward the Democratic Party.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took a giant step for pragmatism by negotiating a budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. -- and the ideological wing of the party freaked out. House Speaker John Boehner, as rock-ribbed a Main Street conservative as you'll ever meet, is routinely attacked on far-right websites as some kind of squishy moderate.
The question of how the GOP should proceed really should be a no-brainer. But after cynically taking advantage of the huge jolt of energy provided by tea party activists, the Republican establishment is finding that these true believers don't necessarily listen when they're told to go sit in a corner and shut up.
The no-compromises GOP base is fertile fundraising territory for potential future presidential candidates, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and for pressure groups such as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. So these provocateurs can be counted on to keep far-right anger and resentment at a rolling boil -- and resist the establishment's attempt to lower the temperature.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is expected to spend up to $50 million to ensure that the Republican Party chooses no extremist "loser candidates" for Senate races. As Scott Reed, the chamber's chief political strategist, told The Wall Street Journal: "That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket."