Imagine what would happen if:
• The budget deal passes the Senate with a handful of Republicans;
• Immigration reform passes the House and something is agreed upon by the Senate;
• In 2014 the House lead expands;
• All Senate incumbents defeat their right-wing challengers and the GOP takes the Senate;
• If not a grand bargain, then a modest bargain with some entitlement reform is passed; and
• One or more tea party favorites run in 2016 and lose decisively to a mainstream GOP nominee who wins the presidency.
Well, that would be a triumph of the center-right and the demise of the tea party, at least from an electoral and governance standpoint. It would reaffirm the GOP as a national, if not dominate, party. And it would move the national agenda significantly to the right since the GOP would hold both houses of Congress and the White House.
One can see, then, that what is of tremendous benefit to mainstream Republicans (and to the agenda of conservative reform) puts the tea party professionals — those inside the Beltway right wingers who gain glory and make money by attacking Republicans and blocking legislative compromise — largely out of business. Sure, they remain active participants in electoral politics, even more active critics and occasional contributors to national policy debates, but they no longer have the influence to either elect or primary candidates. They become merely gadflies and kibitzers.
That is one possible scenario that plays out over the next few years. One can see how the interests of mainstream and tea party conservatives collide and why, for example, the recent budget deal was a threat to the latter. The enemy (not of conservatism) but of the right wingers who depend on controversy, resentment and defeat is center-right governance. Functional government of the center-right saps the interest in throwing the “traitors” out. It discourages primaries from the right. It dulls the interest of donors.
It is important to distinguish here between conservatives who largely embrace the modern Reagan and post-Reagan agenda (best exemplified these days by GOP governors) and right wingers, those whose volume is always turned to high, see politics as all-or-nothing, want to take the country back to the pre-New Deal or even pre-Progressive era, and aim to freeze the United States demographically by keeping immigrants out and socially by refusing to accept changed beliefs on topics like gay marriage. The entities and politicians (the Heritage Action, angry talk radio, Sen. Ted Cruz crowd) that populate the second group flourish when the GOP is in the minority, so defeat is their ally.
The contrast between the two groups is evident in the trajectory of Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), pre- and post-shutdown. His ideology didn’t change, but his tone, outlook and purpose sure did after he saw the destruction wrought by the shutdown. He moved from the group that relishes defeat and delights in spreading resentment to the group that wants to govern. I’d suggest in the wake of the shutdown, and now the budget deal, we will see more conservatives follow Lee’s lead.
Now, there is another scenario, maybe less likely but certainly possible over the next few years:
• The budget deal passes the Senate with no Republicans;
• Immigration reform never passes the House and nothing is agreed upon with the Senate;
• In 2014 the House GOP lead stays the same or shrinks;
• Some Senate incumbents defeat their right-wing challengers, but others do not and the GOP doesn’t take the Senate;
• No bargains are struck for the remainder of the Obama term; and
• One or more tea party favorites runs in 2016, one wins the nomination and loses decisively to Hillary Clinton while the GOP House majority is lost as well.
In that case we return to an era of Democratic rule and the GOP becomes a marginal player on the national scene. It is impossible, I would suggest, for the country to be governed mostly, let alone entirely, by the GOP if the tea party contingent triumphs within the GOP. The people who brought us the shutdown do not reflect the desires, outlook and views of a majority of the country. When presented with that alternative, the lion share of the country will choose the Democrats time and time again.
Which one will it be? It’s up to GOP office holders, candidates and voters.