With declarations of a conservative civil war being proclaimed this week, political combatants on the right are picking sides between Tea Party activists hungry for radical change within the GOP, and the Republican Establishment, which seeks to regain control of the party's message and improve upon 2012's election setbacks.
This week Karl Rove and his allies at the American Crossroads super PAC launched the "Conservative Victory Project," a group that plans to support more traditional Republican candidates in an effort to end the streak of undisciplined Tea Party hopefuls who blew Republican-leaning races with controversial campaign comments. (Think: Todd Akin.)
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Canton (R-Va) just launched an effort to rebrand brand the Republican Party and broaden its appeal by softening the harsh rhetoric and, theoretically, seeking common ground. That kind of bipartisan, bridge-building rhetoric is precisely what the Tea Party labels as conservative heresy.
The right-wing blowback, especially to the fight Rove so publicly picked, was immediate and unfiltered: Rush Limbaugh complained two mighty forces were now targeting the Tea Party: Democrats and Republicans, led by elites like Rove.
With shots now being fired, guess who's stuck in the middle of the GOP's fight? Fox News.
As the TV home base for Rove (or the GOP "demolition man" as he was dubbed online) and one of the earliest supporters of the Tea Party's crusade against Obama's alleged socialism, Fox News has one foot planted in each of the two warring camps and finds itself in the awkward position of having to navigate the name calling. (Note that Fox recently parted ways with Tea Party cheerleaders Sarah Palin and Dick Morris, but it also signed up Tea Party fan Erick Erickson as a contributor.)
Will Fox try to remain a neutral player and split the difference between the warring factions? That kind of play-nice approach runs counter to the Fox News playbook, which is defined by finding a common enemy (i.e. someone with a D-for-Democrat in front of their name) and smacking them relentlessly. But in this battle, that's not an option.
Another structural problem is Fox doesn't really function as a clearinghouse for ideas, or a town hall forum where conservatives can hash out their differences. (Heated agreement appears to be the programming goal.) Fox News' purpose is to serve as a partisan missile. Now, as the civil war erupts, Fox might have to divert its attention from bashing Obama and be forced to play referee between two embittered conservative camps. Either that, or pick sides.
Of course, the notion that an American "news" channel might pick sides in an inter-party political squabble was once unthinkable, since that's not what news organizations do. But Fox long ago turned itself into the Obama Opposition Party, which means it will play a crucial role in the Tea Party's unfolding battle with the Republican Establishment.
What's also awkward for Fox is that the emerging split within conservative ranks springs directly from the cable channel's failed attempt to marshal the Republican's campaign season last year. After sponsoring a sputtering GOP primary season, Fox chief Roger Ailes was supposed to serve as the GOP's 2012 kingmaker and help Republicans reclaim the White House.
He didn't and they flopped.
The subsequent electoral anger is what's fueling the civil war. Rove and his allies are sick of losing elections and blame the Tea Party for producing erratic candidates, while Tea Partiers are sick of losing elections and blame Rove and his allies for watering down the conservative message.
Whose side is Fox on?
The channel recently renewed Rove's contract, so he's not going anywhere. Yet for all practical purposes Fox invented the Tea Party movement. Yes, the party's inception is often traced to CNBC's Rick Santelli and his on-air "populist" rant against Obama and mortgage bailouts back in February 2009. But in terms of providing the marketing muscle to grow the Tea Party and the free airtime that helped it become a national movement, Fox News was invaluable in 2009 and 2010. Back then, Fox News basked in the Tea Party's outrageous ways as members followed the cable channel's lead in demonizing the new Democratic president.
The Tea Party likely wouldn't exist today without Fox News, which means any effort to divorce itself from the movement could prove cumbersome. It's also a move that might alienate its core viewers. There's already grumbling from Tea Party defenders who are unhappy with Rove's prominent association with Fox News.
Writing in Politico this week, syndicated radio host Steve Deace lashed out at Rove and his "prominent and annoying display on Fox News as the Republican ruling class' mouthpiece."
On Twitter, former Republican Congressman and Tea Party favorite Joe Walsh also took aim:
I'm filing the paperwork to form a super PAC to support freedom-loving conservative alternatives to @karlrove on FOX-- Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) February 5, 2013
For Tea Party firebrands, and likely Fox loyalists, Rove is the face of Republican Establishment -- of the enemy-- which means to a certain degree so is Fox News.
One of the defining traits of the right-wing media for years, if not decades, has been the extraordinary discipline under which its players operate. Less interested in public debates among themselves and more focused on attacking common enemies, conservatives haven't invested a lot of time and resources in soul searching. But as electoral losses pile up, the frustration is seeping into public view.
Fingers are being pointed, sides are being taken, and Fox News is caught in the middle of the mess. And it's ones Roger Ailes helped create.