The split in the GOP these days is often characterized as the tea party wing vs. the business wing. Neither label is accurate.

Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The tea party was a diffused, bottom-up movement of non-professional politicians. That was its charm and effectiveness. But like any grassroots movement it could have matured or fizzled or been co-opted. In this case it was co-opted by a professional political class that largely runs things from Washington and is staffed by veteran Republicans (e.g. Ed Meese, Jim DeMint, FreedomWorks) and ex-politicians (e.g. Madison Project). The governing class is nothing if not opportunistic so it seized the moment, thrust itself into the limelight and now dons the mantle of the tea party. By the way, the far right has always been there and many forget there was a right-wing faction that railed against President Reagan.

As for the other side of the equation, “business wing” is an incomplete description of those who opposed at the very least the tone and tactics of the hard-right. Yes, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Federation of Independent Businesses don’t like the chaos wrought by the shutdown squad and they want stability and government reform. But so do defense hawks and suburban families. They also want a government that functions, performs the essential tasks of the federal government and is predictable. Suburban middle-class and upper-middle-class families can operate successfully because they lead organized (albeit frazzled) lives. They don’t want a government that adds turmoil; they want one that doesn’t make their lives more onerous. All three of these, and social conservatives as well, have an interest in winning elections. Unlike the political class, they don’t benefit from the act of fighting; they benefit when the fighting leads to a positive outcome for their causes (e.g. a strong national defense, a reasonable regulatory environment).

A conservative think tanker reminded me that many movements have both rabble rousers and stabilizers. Sam Adams and the original tea partiers stirred the masses; John Adams and the rest erected organized the 13 colonies, ran a war and eventually erected a government. If you put Sam Adams in charge of setting up a government and John Adams in charge of leading the masses, then you’d have a weak government and a weak revolution.

This suggests one way in which the two factions of the GOP can co-exist. Popular movements can stir the masses, set long-term goals, instill a sense of purpose and keep an engaged citizenry. Those with an interest and proficiency in governing can come up with short-term tactics and translate the broad ideals into an agenda. One plays the music, the other writes the lyrics. Both have a role and both are essential to conservative governance (if that is in fact what both aim to do). But so long as the shutdown squad defines itself as the opposition to other Republicans rather than as opponents of liberalism or purveyors of a reinvigorated brand of conservatism it’s not going to work. This is hardly surprising.

It turns out the leadership knows something about legislating and has the experience to predict how legislative battles are likely to go. They did know better than to shutdown the government; they were ineffective however in steering the ship away from the rocks. And leaders can benefit from the big picture (don’t simply slow the growth of the welfare state) and the populist orientation (eschew cronyism) of the popular movement. Politics isn’t that simple of course; the rabble rousers want to run the House and the leaders hesitate to assert their authority for fear of getting out of touch with the base. But when tempers have cooled and the mistakes of the shutdown can be viewed clearly the two sides might consider a partnership of necessity. (Neither can win elections without the other.)

This, of course, postulates that the group that co-opted the tea party isn’t in it for the money, the fame and the power. That might be wrong. If so, and if their aim is not success for the party and/or the movement, then forget all this. This only works if both have the same goal — creating a governing majority that can enact conservative policies. If it isn’t the latter, get ready for a generation or so of liberal government.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.