03/29/2012 09:25 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

Ending Republican Cannibalism

Australian songwriter, screenwriter and author Nick Cave wrote, "If you're going to dine with them cannibals, sooner or later, darling, you're going to get eaten."

Is the Republican Party "dining with cannibals" and in danger of eating itself? Clearly, former U.S. Senators Bill Brock (R-TN), Jack Danforth (R-MO), Trent Lott (R-MS) and Don Nickles (R-OK) think so. They coauthored a recent Washington Post op-ed making a case for political sanity. They weren't appealing for bipartisanship or suggesting a search for common ground with President Obama. They were calling for an end to Republican cannibalism.

What obviously alarms these party elders is the specter of entire segments of their organization being devoured by a collection of ideologues and zealots with no use for anyone who doesn't believe exactly what they believe. According to abundant research, this group's vision for the country is exponentially more parochial and intolerant than the attitudes of most of the other 313 million people who inhabit the land. Yet this has not diminished their appetite for the flesh of the insufficiently pure.

The cannibals, despite their narrow worldview and relative small number (60 of the 435 in the House -- about 14 percent -- are members of the Tea Party Caucus), evidently set the agenda for a major political party and its candidates for the presidency. Republican leaders in Congress are absolutely in thrall to an extreme itinerary. They've gone from a legislative agenda that at least paid lip service to issues that matter to the nation: jobs and the economy, to join a crusade against the rights of large segments of the American people.

Why would the Republican leadership be jerked around by a small number of largely new faces? Why would they consider reneging on a very public budget ceiling agreement with the president? Why would they vote lock-step against major matters they've previously supported? Why would they careen headlong into issues like women's reproductive rights and immigration xenophobia, risking the alienation of at least half of U.S. voters on the first issue and the nation's fastest growing minority population on the second? Because they're afraid.

Why did the Republican presidential primary become an American Idol of bellicose, anti-government, anti-social, anti-intellectual rhetoric where the contestant who made the most outrageous statement was rewarded with applause, cheers and votes? Why would the apparent Republican presidential nominee be reduced to a laughingstock trying to contort himself into an ultraconservative? And why, despite his moderate record as Governor of Massachusetts, is he desperately trying to convince his party's far right that he's one of them and always has been? Because he's afraid.

The problem is the Republican establishment used the most extreme elements of fiscal conservatives, small government conservatives, Evangelicals, Libertarians and outright bigots to win -- to take power. But those activists have now taken control. The Tea Party tail is wagging the Republican dog. And the GOP establishment is afraid.

Why? Cannibalism. In 2010, conservative four-term Republican Senator Robert Bennett from Utah came in third for re-election in his own party's primary. He wasn't conservative enough. Two near-certain Republican pick-ups in the Senate were lost by Tea Party candidates who represented the Whack Job Wing of the party. Christine O'Donnell, who is not a witch, defeated former Delaware Congressman and Governor Mike Castle in the 2010 Republican primary and was then trounced by Democrat Chris Coons. In Nevada, Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle snatched defeat from the jaws of victory over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was at the height of his unpopularity.

This year, Republican senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana are facing primary challenges from the right. And Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who could stay as long as she liked, announced she's had enough of such nonsense and is retiring.

It was clearly time for the Old Guard to step in with a sermon about GOP values and ending Republican cannibalism. Brock, Danforth, Lott and Nickles represent nearly 40 years of leadership in the Republican Party, from the Nixon Administration into George W. Bush's second term. They worked with Republican and Democratic majorities, and with Republican and Democratic presidents. They became very adept at working the process to get what they wanted and stop what they didn't. And while they represented diverse constituencies, they almost always came together on big issues.

Their op-ed pointed describes the perils of " attempt at a political purge... an effort to remove all from the party but the 'doctrinally pure'" because it threatens any possibility of a Republican majority and scares off or turns off most voters. It's driving the Republican agenda so far to the right that "acceptable" candidates will have a harder and harder time winning support from the general public.

The former senators' message was about inclusion, about working together for the larger good. They lamented "false divisions" and labels, and called for a return to the principles and unifying philosophy that "have spanned the concerns and principles held by much of the American electorate."

Sadly, this plea for a return to high principle and unifying philosophy stops a bit short of unselfish patriotism. The concern, it turns out, is limited to the future prospects of the Republican Party. However, the silver lining is that if the Republican Party returns to high principle and unifying philosophy -- if Republicans end their cannibalism -- the Legislative branch of the government could again be able to function and the nation would be much better off.