What the GOP’s old bulls versus young bucks skirmish says about the party

March 15, 2013

The events of the past nine days have exposed a Republican generational divide as revealing as any rift in the party.

"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday. “I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?”

No, not after last week.


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

It all started with Paul's marathon filibuster of now-CIA Director John Brennan last Wednesday, which was joined by a pack of Senate Republicans. But not all of the upper chamber's Republicans were keen on the maneuver.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two leading foreign policy hawks, denounced the filibuster, which was an effort to get answers about the Obama administration's drone program. McCain and Graham support the program.

In an interview published later in the week, McCain referred to Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) as "wacko birds," a label Cruz responded to eagerly in a Wednesday speech at a conservative group's award dinner.

So, what's going on here? On the one hand, there are underlying foreign policy differences and philosophies between McCain and Paul. But in the political back and forth, Paul is making a simpler old-versus-new contrast, too. And he's not the only one pushing back against the Arizona senator.

"If standing for the Constitution, standing for liberty, standing for conservative values makes one a wacko bird, as one eminence grise recently put it, then I am pleased that birds of a feather flock together," said Cruz on Wednesday.

Now, not all the GOP's emerging voices are calling for an abrupt shift from the GOP of years past.

“We don’t need a new idea; the idea is called America, and it still works,” Sen. Marco Rubo (R-Fla.) said to raucous applause in his CPAC speech Thursday.

In his own way, though, Rubio is casting himself as an ambassador of a more modern GOP, even if he isn't rejecting the pillars of the old one the way Paul is. Rubio's helping spearhead an immigration reform effort in the Senate. And his penchant for talking about rap music in media interviews sets him apart from many Republicans, a narrative of which he is surely aware.

For GOPers looking to update their brand, it's also helpful that the new crop of Republicans that has quickly moved to the forefront of the 2016 conversation is mostly youthful, in political years. Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) are in their 40s. Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) are 50. At 60, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) is the eldest. But he'd still be younger on Election Day than the previous two GOP presidential nominees.

If anything, criticism from McCain and Graham will only energize the most enthusiastic supporters of Cruz and Paul. But, the senior senators are still influential figures in the party, and totally alienating oneself from the more experienced GOP voices carries risks, which is something Rubio appears to recognize.

It's all part of what makes politics such a delicate balancing act. We'll see how new GOP kids on block navigate the high-wire in the coming months and years.

Jindal, Bush headline day two of CPAC: Today is the second day of annual conservative confab, and the two potential 2016 presidential candidates will be speaking, while a third, Ryan, will also deliver remarks. Mitt Romney will address the conference too, in what will be his first major speech since losing the 2012 presidential election.

Don't look for Bush's name when the presidential straw poll results are in on Saturday, though. He's opted not to include himself in the mix. Stay tuned to Post Politics throughout the day for the latest on the conference. And for a wrap on what happened on day one, click here.

Fixbits:

A federal grand jury is said to be investigating Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Iran is "over a year or so" away from developing a nuclear weapon, President Obama said in an interview.

The Senate Budget Committee approved a budget for the first time in four years on Thursday.

Senate Republicans were upbeat after their Thursday meeting with Obama.

Obama will headline a DCCC fundraiser in April.

Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) warned the state's entire House GOP delegation not to challenge him in the Senate race.

The White House launched a "Being Biden" audio series.

Must-reads:

"Scott Prouty, recorder of ‘47 percent’ video: An unlikely political gadfly" -- Jerry Markon and Krissah Thompson, Washington Post

"Joe Manchin fights uphill battle for gun deal" -- Manu Raju and John Bresnahan Politico

"Obama turns on the charm for Republicans, but not all of them" -- Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Sean Sullivan · March 14, 2013