Harold Meyerson
Harold Meyerson
Opinion Writer

Searching for independent thinkers in the GOP

Over the next couple of weeks, the fate of, well, some pretty big things — the Republican Party, the American system of government, the global economy — rests with about 20 people: Republican members of the House who have said they favor a straight-up continuing resolution that funds the government. No re-litigating Obamacare, no scaling back Social Security — just a “clean” resolution that would leave those other conservative causes to be fought about on their merits some other day.

When those votes are added to those of the 200 House Democrats who have said they would support a clean resolution, that yields a narrow majority for ending the government shutdown. It is hard to believe that those GOP dissidents wouldn’t support raising the debt ceiling as well. If they’re not willing to hold the functioning of government hostage to the tea party’s demands, they’re not likely to hold the economy hostage, either.

Harold Meyerson

Writes a weekly political and domestic affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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But that’s a big “if.” While The Post counts 21 GOP House members who have declared themselves in favor of ending the shutdown by passing a clean resolution, most of them have done nothing to compel the House Republican leadership to allow such a vote.

They could, for example, publicly declare their intention to join House Democrats in signing a discharge petition that would eventually force such a vote. They could privately declare that intent to House Speaker John Boehner, leaving him either to accede to such a vote or have it forced upon him. These center-right Republicans, however, have not indicated that they are willing to cross that Rubicon.

There is a simple explanation for their reluctance: Such action would surely result in serious primary challenges in 2014, when all the internal dynamics of today’s Republican Party would be working against them. The gerrymandering of congressional districts has made them safe for radical conservatives. The rise of the right that has marginalized the party nationally and driven moderates from its ranks has made the remaining handful of center-right incumbents exquisitely vulnerable to tea party challengers.

That, in turn, has created a strategic asymmetry within the House Republican caucus. The tea party faction, which by most estimates includes about 40 members, wields vast power over the leadership and the caucus, while the center-right contingent wields zilch. Both factions have enough votes to block legislation backed by the House leadership if the Democrats also vote against it, but it has been tea partyers, not centrist-moderates, who have used that veto power. Unlike their tea party counterparts, the center-right members lack gumption and imagination.

The gumption gap is understandable;unlike the Republican radicals, the moderates fear primary challenges next year. But there is a way to avoid Republican primary challenges, though it would take a leap of political imagination. To vote his beliefs and duck that challenge, all a center-right Republican has to do is declare himself an independent.

This is hardly a course to be taken lightly. It entails the loss of congressional seniority and would cause rifts with friends and allies. It requires considerable explanation to one’s constituents. There is no guarantee of reelection.

But others have taken this course and survived — most recently, former senator Joseph Lieberman, who, when he lost Connecticut’s Democratic Senate primary in 2006, reconfigured himself an independent and won reelection. Many of the House members tagged as supporters of a clean resolution, such as New York’s Peter King and Pennsylvania’s Charlie Dent, come from districts in the Northeast that aren’t as rabidly right as some in the Sunbelt. Others, such as Virginia’s Scott Rigell and Frank Wolf, come from districts with large numbers of federal employees, who almost surely are not entranced by the tea party’s anti-government jihad.

Leaving Republican ranks would not mean joining the Democrats. The ideological gap between GOP dissidents and the Democratic Party is huge. But the center-right dissidents are being willfully blind if they can’t see that the ideological gap between them and the tea-party-dominated GOP is also vast.

If they truly believe that government by hostage-taking is no way to run a democracy, they shouldn’t have too much trouble defending their defection. They could argue that their party has been transformed into a closed sect that can never win a national majority, or that it has descended into a hysteria that has run roughshod over such conservative values as prudence and balance, not to mention a modicum of strategic sense.

They could dub themselves Independent Republicans or True Republicans. They could tell their constituents that they put the interests of the nation above those of their party. If that’s not a winning argument in a swing district, Lord only knows what is.

Of course, these dissident Republicans could always stay and fight. But by staying and not fighting — their current course of inaction — they abet the very tea party takeover they dread.

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