Updated at 11:24 a.m on April 14.
Republicans may not pitch a full-fledged battle over President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. Regardless of whom he selects, however, there still will be fireworks this summer. Anyone who doubts that should consider the GOP's past few weeks, which offer a glaring illustration of what stands between the party and power: a supreme lack of national leaders.
Between fallout from the Republican National Committee's sex-club scandal and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, one theme has emerged: While the party remains unified on messaging and policy, they struggle to unite behind someone who can lead the party from its feudal state to national dominance. While this challenge is common for parties out of power, failure to address it can hinder their revival.
Consider, for example, former Gov. Sarah Palin and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who stirred the biggest debate and drew the most headlines in New Orleans. Let's be honest: Neither Palin nor Gingrich plans to lead the party in 2012. Neither one wants to be king. Kingmaker? Perhaps.
For the latest evidence of Palin's intentions, look no further than the relentlessly sarcastic tone of her partisan barbs, which suggests she has little interest in expanding her base beyond its conservative core. Lines like "How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?" may grab headlines and delight Tea Partiers. But the question's inherent cynicism irks independent voters. Indeed, recent polls show that while independent voters have moved away from Obama, they aren't moving towards Palin. And her "unfavorable" rating has reached an all-time high of 55 percent in the CNN/Opinion Research poll, while her "favorable" rating ranks among her lowest ever.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) meanwhile won the SRLC straw poll, but only after a vastly over-organized effort, and even then he only beat Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, by a single vote. RNC Chairman Michael Steele's recent scandal caused big donors to skip the conference, leaving him to address a half-empty audience. House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may run the party on Capitol Hill, but their numbers in some polls are worse than those of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, despite lower name ID.
Tea Party activists have even grown disillusioned with Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., who snubbed those activists and Palin this week by refusing to join them at a rally in Boston. His move, which highlights the limits of Palin's appeal among Republicans, drew howls from conservative talkers on Monday morning. But Brown didn't appear daunted, bolting from his party later that day to break a Senate filibuster on unemployment benefits.
What does all this have to do with a fight over Obama's Supreme Court nominee? A lot.
No other event between now and the midterm elections (i.e., the unofficial kick-off of the 2012 presidential primary) will likely offer Republicans as much opportunity to unite the party behind one voice.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas, acknowledged as much this week. "Conservatives across the country understand how the court is sometimes used to overrule majority opinion," he told the National Law Journal. "So, this is something that I think is really a windfall for us leading up to the November elections. It's going to get people very energized."
With a few glaring exceptions, Supreme Court fights are more motivating to the right than the left, meaning it's more likely that the GOP will raise money and enthusiasm over a vacancy, regardless of how confrontational the pick is. The biggest resistance to George W. Bush's choice of Harriet Miers, for example, wasn't Democrats but conservative Republicans.
Much will depend, of course, on whom Obama puts forward. But for now, this much seems clear: The "party of hell no" is likely to reward the leader who puts up the most aggressive, and effective, voice of dissent.