ME AGAINST MY BROTHER; MY BROTHER AND I AGAINST THE LIBERAL ANTICHRISTS
I'm not going to get too excited about the anti-Limbaugh apostasies of Michael Steele and Eric Cantor. (UPDATE: Or about Limbaugh's response, posted in full at his site.) This moment is probably just going to follow the pattern we recall from the period after John McCain won the nomination last year: movement conservatives are going to howl at the notion that someone who deviates from Correct Thinking is besmirching the Republican name, there'll be talk of mass defections from the party ... and then everyone's going to remember how unspeakably evil we Democrats and liberals are and they're all going to join hands and sing "Kumbaya." The apostates are probably also going to start parroting Correct Thinking soon, just as McCain did, possibly even overdoing it a bit in order to win back alienated rank-and-file wingnuts, just as McCain did with the Palin pick and the McCarthyite fall campaign. This will make the reconciliation go down more easily.
But there will be long-term fallout. Bitterness will linger in the background. The heresy of Steele and Cantor reduces by two the number of people the crazy base will hereafter regard as truly "pure" -- which means that no matter how extreme Cantor and Steele are in the future in their wingnuttiness, any failure on their part (say, a loss of seats by Steele's party in the 2010 midterms) will be explained away as the failure of the impure, not as the failure of mainstream Republican/conservative thinking. The crazy base will simply deny that conservatives were rejected at the polls, because now, whenever it's convenient, Cantor and Steele can be dismissed as not "real" conservatives. It doesn't matter that they're classic wingnuts in 99.99999% of what they say and do -- one drop of impurity will be enough to make them suspect.
Eventually, there'll be hardly anyone left who hasn't racked up at least a few impurity points -- the people deemed truly "pure" will probably be Limbaugh and his fellow radio talkers, the dead guy who was president in the '80s, and hardly anyone else. Which would mean that wingnuts will always be able to say that "real" conservatism hasn't been tried ... because no flesh-and-blood person (or at least no flesh-and-blood person who's actually won an election post-Reagan) is pure enough to embody "real" conservatism. So they'll keep failing, but they'll tell us their ideas still haven't had a fair test ... probably for decades to come.
(By the way, I'm using "conservative" to mean what wingnuts mean when they use the word -- which is, in our language, "wingnutty." I know it's not true conservatism.)