Conservative purity becomes harder to define for GOP

July 31, 2013

Paul vs. Christie. A Senate fight about defunding Obamacare. A House divide over National Security Agency surveillance.

In the span of a week, a trio of substantial rifts in the Republican Party have been laid bare. What does it all mean? In short, if Republicans are looking for a conservative purity test when it comes to evaluating its candidates, they aren't going to find one.


(AP photo)

What began as a tiff over national security ideology between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has escalated into a near daily tit for tat that now involves how much federal aid their respective states receive.

The heated rhetoric sounds like a campaign-style debate. And one of the reasons is that the stakes are high and the divide is growing. As we have written, the libertarian-style national security perspective espoused by Paul has been gaining steam in recent years -- to the point that more hawkish figures like Christie -- and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) -- have felt the need to push back.

But what's most notable about the current debate is that there is really no favorite or underdog -- only a jumbled mess. A vote in the House last week revealed as much. Ninety-four Republicans voted to restrict how the National Security Agency collects phone records (the Paul view), while 134 voted against it (the Christie view). That's a pretty even divide over an issue that just a few years ago would have produced near unanimity in GOP circles when the hawks dominated.

Even in the normally more cordial Senate, a schism has developed in the GOP Conference. The fight is over how best to combat Obamacare. A proposal backed by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to reject any budget or continuing resolution measure that spends even a penny funding the health-care law has been derided -- in no uncertain terms -- by the likes of Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), and Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

The fact that high-profile conservative senators (Corker is more moderate, but Coburn is a leading conservative, as is Burr) have staked out ground on both sides suggests, like the showdown in the House, that we're talking about more than a minor divide.

While Cruz and Rubio stand together in the fight to defund Obamacare, they held opposing viewpoints in the recently concluded Senate debate over immigration. In other words, allies vary from fight to fight and issue to issue, making it increasingly difficult to lump Republicans together.

The jumbled nature of the party was reflected in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, which showed unhappiness with Republican leaders was constant across the political spectrum -- from those describing themselves as "very conservative" to those who define themselves as moderates.

Moderates were the most unhappy, at 59 percent, while "very conservative" Republicans weren't far behind at 53 percent. In the middle were "somewhat conservative" Republicans, 48 percent of whom disapprove of their party's leadership.

With both ends of the GOP political spectrum unhappy, Republican leaders and potential presidential candidates looking to broaden their appeal are left confused. Are Republicans unhappy because their party has been too conservative or not pure enough?

The answer, quite simply, isn't clear, and it's part of the reason why we are seeing prominent Republicans come down very much on the opposite sides of these issues.

What it all means for 2016 is that there will likely be no candidate who can credibly lay claim to being the one "pure" conservative Republican -- not Paul, not Christie, not Rubio. There are simply too many evenly divided battles over issues that don't fit neatly on the conservative spectrum.

And for each of these candidates, there will be something for conservative voters to dislike.

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Sean Sullivan | July 31, 2013