Understanding the Obama-era Republican Party

In a piece over the weekend, WaPo's Dan Balz and Karen Tumulty wrote this about the current state of the Republican Party:

The party is more consistently to the right today than it has been in modern times, certainly more than it was in Ronald Reagan’s days. The Gallup poll has about 70 percent of Republicans identifying themselves as conservative.

But arising within that broad worldview are an increasing number of policy trip wires — separating the corporate-friendly establishment branch of the party from the passionate tea party faction, the stalwart social conservatives from the ascendant libertarians.

I've spent the last few weeks in conversations with a wide variety of Republican strategists aimed at understanding the various factions within the GOP as well as how the party got to where it is — and, even more importantly, where it's heading. At the center of every one of those conversations is President Obama and the effect that his six years in office have had on the opposition party.

“We are now operating in the Obama Republican Party," explained GOP consultant Jon Lerner. "The old Republican fissures over social issues are submerged and nearly entirely gone.  Obama’s lurch to the left on size-of-government issues has created an aggressive Republican reaction on that basis.  So today the biggest divide in the GOP is between those who favor accommodating Obama’s big-government approach where politically expedient, and those who reject it altogether.”


Think back to the Republican Party pre-Obama — circa 2008. At that point, the party was split, roughly, into two factions: the conservative establishment and social conservatives. (There was a third-ish faction of center-right moderates as well, represented by Rudy Giuliani.) John McCain was the establishment candidate ultimately, although Fred Thompson (and even Mitt Romney) also tried to drink from those waters. Social conservatives were largely behind Mike Huckabee — hence his surprising strength early in the process — although Romney tried, unsuccessfully, to co-opt that group as well. As typically happens, the establishment pick triumphed in the end. (The 2000 race was a slight variation on that theme; George W. Bush was able to straddle the line between establishment and social conservatives successfully, with the lone challenge coming from a center-right McCain candidacy.)

Obama's election changed all of that, fundamentally reorienting the Republican Party.

It began with this rant by Rick Santelli on CNBC in February 2009 in the midst of the economic stimulus fight.

If the fight over the economic stimulus package began the transformation of the Obama-era Republican Party, the fight over — and the eventual passage of — the Affordable Care Act cemented it.  The center-right disappeared. (It was already dying in 2008 — see Giuliani's woeful campaign — but the election of Obama pushed the party farther to the ideological right, making the center nonexistent.) Social conservatives, so powerful during the 1990s and early 2000s, began to see that influence wane somewhat as the focus on spending and the ever-growing size of government came to be the animating impulse of the conservative activist base.

The 2010 election made clear that the old way of thinking about the Republican Party was, well, old. The election was fueled by tea party-led energy that equaled a massive 63-seat House gain for Republicans — and, in its wake, the fight between factions that continues to play out today. The party, at this point, is best understood as split between the establishment and the tea party.  Understood another way, it is bifurcated between the business/country club wing of the GOP and the populist wing.  However you describe it, the split is quite clear.

The establishment remains much like the establishment of old, though, as I noted above, it has been pulled farther to the right because of the rise of the tea party via Obama. It still contains the majority of big donors, who fuel a campaign that will cost the winning candidate in excess of $1 billion, much of the professional political class (consultants, fundraisers, etc.) and a slew of governors — Chris Christie in New Jersey, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Jeb Bush (formerly) in Florida — seen as serious contenders for the 2016 nod if they run.

The tea party is the new-ish arrival on the scene. Although the rise of the tea party is, rightly, tied to the election of Obama, the simultaneous shrinking of social conservatives' influence has come amid rapidly changing societal opinions on once-hot-button topics such as gay marriage. That's not to say that social conservatives don't retain some level of standing within the tea-party faction of the GOP.  They do — particularly in the early voting state of Iowa, as proven by former senator Rick Santorum's belated victory in the 2012 caucuses and the lingering popularity of Huckabee in national polling.  Rather, it's evidence that the primary focus of the non-establishment wing of the party is on the size of government and its debt rather than abortion or gay marriage.  The tea party wing contains the organic activist energy within the GOP, an Internet fundraising army of small donors and a disparate gaggle of advisers, consultants and hangers-on of widely variant abilities. The leaders of this group — Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — are both very likely to run for president in two years.

The fight between the two warring factions was on display last week in Virginia (a tea party win) and Iowa (an establishment win). It is the underlying dynamic of the fight to be the next House majority whip, which will take place Thursday in Congress. And it will be at the heart of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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