05/17/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

The Republicans' Obama Problem


By attacking the president on every front -- from Obamacare to Benghazi -- the Republicans are following a tried-and-true formula for a party out of power, especially during a second-term presidency. They did it with Clinton, and the Democrats did it with Bush. But this is a different era -- and a very different Republican party. Their brass knuckle assaults on Obama are sure to backfire and damage the Republicans more than Obama and the Democrats.

Here's why. The Republican party is now engaged in a civil war among a number of factions -- social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, evangelicals and the Tea Party. They disagree on a host of issues from gun control and immigration to deficits and military spending. But what they all seem to agree on is their dislike -- even hatred -- for Barack Obama. However, in their blind fixation on attacking the president, what the Republicans don't seem to understand is that Obama will never again be up for election.

Sure, it's good political sport to go after your enemies. But you have to be careful when you choose those enemies. It is true that Democrats were often vicious in their criticism of George W. Bush. But it is also true that the Bush presidency -- with the fiasco in Iraq and the onslaught of the Great Recession -- was viewed as a disaster by most Americans. It seriously tarnished not just Bush, but the Republican party brand. President Obama, on the other hand, despite the controversies over Obamacare, has not only led the country out of Iraq (and soon Afghanistan), but also out of the Great Recession. However doggedly the Republicans go after Obama, they won't be able take away from those accomplishments in the minds of the majority of Americans.

Barring some major catastrophe, it is unlikely that the Democratic brand will be damaged very much by the record of the Obama administration or by the attacks from Republicans. It is true that the Republicans will likely keep the House in 2014, largely because of stubborn incumbency rates and chronic gerrymandering of districts. They may have a shot at retaking the Senate because of the vagrancies of the election cycle, but even that is looking somewhat less likely.

So who will the Republican attacks on Obama damage most? The answer, as surprising as it may seem, is the Republicans themselves. By attacking Obama, the Republicans are throwing red meat to their base, which is an increasingly small and extreme group of right-wingers. The danger of tossing red meat to a tiger is that it becomes even more aggressive. Translation: The Republican base -- especially the Tea Partiers -- may decide that even the hint of compromise with Obama is treason, and to be punished by a political death sentence.

We saw this happen in the last election cycle, when right-wing Republicans offered up extremist and often dangerously incompetent candidates, who won their primaries (thanks to low turnout from more moderate voters) and then lost to Democrats in the general election. Whenever a party decides to circle the wagons and fire within, it is a political bloodbath, as the Democratic party witnessed in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era.

The leaders of the Republican party are under constant pressure to exploit every scandal or trumpet every failure, great or small, of the Obama administration. By doing so, they are playing a very dangerous game that could further split their party and do permanent damage. With Rand Paul already making noises about a run for the presidency -- and some Tea Partiers raising the specter of an independent candidacy -- Republican leaders ought to be very concerned about adding fuel to those fires. Not to mention the fact that all the self-righteous outrage from the Republicans does not go over well with most Americans, who want to see action, not attacks.

For the sake of the country, I would hope that the partisan attacks on the president are toned down to a reasonable level. But as a supporter of the president and, more importantly, the progressive policies of the Democratic party, I have to admit to a certain amount of pleasure at the misguided attack tactics of the Republicans, since they only help the Democratic cause in the long run.