Republicans are their own worst political enemy

August 21, 2013

For a Republican hoping to win back the White House in 2016 after eight years in the political wilderness, it's been a frustrating last few days.

"The party is acting as if the entire world is a GOP primary," said Mike Murphy, a prominent Republican campaign consultant. "That is a very dangerous way to operate. We have massive image problems with the greater electorate, and the silly antics of the purist wing are making our dire problems even worse."


Elephants.

Consider the following events on Tuesday:

* Ted Cruz, the flag-bearer of the tea party movement among elected officials, dominated headlines with his renunciation of his Canadian citizenship, a move that quite clearly signaled his interest in running for president in 2016.

* Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander penned an op-ed in the Tennessean defending himself against tea party attacks, insisting: "One good way to put our country on the right track is to send to Washington a conservative, problem-solving former governor who worked well with others to get the results that put our state on the right track."

* The Senate Conservatives Fund launched radio ads against Republican Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), blasting them for their comments about the viability of linking the defunding of President Obama's health-care law to shutting down the federal government this fall.

* The co-chairman of the Polk County (Iowa) Republican Party resigned, citing the GOP's move to the right as the main reason. "I find it increasingly difficult to defend issues and statements made by Party leaders," wrote Chad Brown.

* Weld County (Colorado) got approval on Tuesday to secede from the rest of the state. The move was in reaction to the Democratic-controlled legislature's action on guns and oil exploration.

Taken one by one, none of the above developments is all that big a deal. Taken together, they illustrate that the Republican Party is on the verge of splitting in two. Now, to be clear, that split won't happen. The two major parties are the two major parties for a reason. Disputes work themselves out. The pendulum swings.

But, for now, Republicans are caught in the midst of an increasingly public battle between establishment and, for lack of a better term, tea party wings that is -- more than anything Democrats have done -- complicating the GOP's path back to power in 2016.

"These groups, once relegated to the fringe were organized and have taken over as many mainstreamers took a vacation or left altogether," explained former Virginia Republican congressman Tom Davis of the growth in the tea party, adding that they "will either learn coalition politics and be productive or they will get crushed a la [Barry] Goldwater and [George] McGovern."

The prospect of facing a Goldwater-like election -- the Arizona senator won only 36 percent of the popular vote in 1964 -- in 2016 is more real than it has been in quite some time, according to close observers of the GOP.

Here's why. The losses of John McCain and Mitt Romney, both establishment picks viewed with semi-open derision by the party's conservative wing, in 2008 and 2012 have convinced the base that the only way to win is to stick to core principles and not move to the middle.

The rapid rise of Cruz is evidence of that belief. And, make no mistake that if Cruz runs, he is either in the top tier or just outside of the top tier of candidates.

What Republicans are currently going through is not unique. Democrats went through a similar existential reckoning in the late 1980s and early 1990s before Bill Clinton led them out of a political wilderness.

Of course, Democrats spent 12 years out of the White House before Clinton could rise. Given how badly split Republicans are at the moment, there are already worries within the GOP that they might have to wait a similar amount of time before the party's intraparty squabble resolves itself and they move forward.

Fixbits:

The Democratic National Committee will vote on a resolution calling for embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to resign.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) will not challenge Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C).

Lamar Alexander's primary challenger, state Rep. Joe Carr (R), lost Chip Saltsman as his campaign manager. Carr was previously a House candidate.

Both the NRCC and DCCC raised about $4.4 million in July.

"Ready for Hillary" super PAC is adding two members from Southern California.

Cruz was heckled at a town hall meeting.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) denies saying Obama "hates white people."

EMILY's List is officially endorsing Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) for the Senate.

Must-reads: 

"Summers, Yellen allies wage behind-the-scenes effort to win Federal Reserve nod" -- Zachary A. Goldfarb, Washington Post

"Obamacare critic Rick Perry seeks cash from law" -- Kyle Cheney and Maggie Haberman, Politico

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Juliet Eilperin · August 20, 2013