With a few words that reflected a mountain of frustration, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has escalated the ongoing struggle over the future of the Republican Party. Whether it proves to be a truly crystallizing moment for a party still trying to find its way after its defeat in 2012 is the critical question.
For much of the year, the Republican Party has been in a deep hole, its credibility diminished, its image at historical lows and its direction heavily influenced by conservative tea party insurgents and their allied outside groups. This fall’s government shutdown only made the hole deeper. Boehner seems to have decided it’s time to stop digging.
The speaker’s blast at outside groups that were calling for the defeat of the bipartisan budget agreement, even before it was unveiled, has reverberated widely. Among other things, Boehner declared that these organizations, which also advocated the strategy that led to the shutdown, have “lost all credibility” because of their extreme positions and incendiary tactics.
Boehner’s comments did not trigger a Republican civil war, as some have suggested. The reality is that the internal conflict has been underway for years. Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama in the 2012 election intensified the debate, and those tensions will be front and center as the GOP heads toward a divisive round of primary elections next year and then a potential battle royal when it picks a presidential nominee in 2016.
Both factions in the GOP’s ongoing struggle — those in the tea party wing and those in the establishment wing — have real grievances. Tea party insurgents have long viewed their congressional leaders as capitulating repeatedly over the years on tougher spending cuts. They see Obama’s Affordable Care Act as such an egregious expansion of big government that it prompted them to embrace a budget strategy this fall that had no chance of success.
This past week, with the bipartisan budget deal negotiated by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the tea party activists see one more example of the party’s refusal to do more to rein in government. The fact that the agreement could spare all members of Congress — and the public — repeated reruns of budgetary standoffs and shutdown threats (likely political losers for the GOP) is not an adequate offset to them.
In terms of the presidency, many conservatives believe that the GOP has not nominated a true and authentic conservative for the job since Ronald Reagan. (Whether Reagan could win his party’s nomination today, given his gubernatorial record of raising taxes and expanding access to abortion, is another matter.) Neither Romney in 2012 nor John McCain in 2008 met their standards.
But it doesn’t stop there. Former president George W. Bush disappointed many in the party’s base who argue that he perpetuated Washington’s big spending ways. Former Senate majority leader Robert Dole, the party’s nominee in 1996, was derided by supply-side conservatives (among them former House speaker Newt Gingrich) as the “tax collector for the welfare state.”
Former president George H.W. Bush proved an apostate to tax-cutting conservatives for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge, an action that split his party in 1990. Conservatives such as Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, later recalled being elated when Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, seeing his defeat as an opening to create a more-conservative party.
Now it’s Paul Ryan who is the disappointment. Ryan has been the intellectual leader of conservatives in the House and, more broadly, in his party. Now he is seen as something of a traitor to the cause for negotiating the bipartisan budget deal.
But the GOP establishment has its own list of grievances and is threatening to fight back. Establishment Republicans view the purity police on the right with disdain. They believe in big-tent Republicanism and pragmatism when it comes to governing.
They see the tea party movement writ large as a decidedly mixed blessing, a faction whose grass-roots energy is valued, but which also has engaged in a series of divisive primary battles. It’s arguable that the tea party cost the Republicans four or five Senate seats over the past two elections. Had most of those races gone the other way, Republicans would be at near-parity with Democrats in the upper chamber.
Establishment Republicans have special scorn for outside groups that are fueling the primary challenges and trying to dictate to members of Congress the strategies they should pursue. These groups include Heritage Action, the Senate Conservative Fund and the Club for Growth — the ones that drove the disastrous shutdown strategy and oppose the latest budget agreement.
A few months ago, Boehner made himself an agent of this strategy, and both he and his party paid a big price. This past week, when these groups called for defeat of the Ryan-Murray budget agreement, Boehner blew his stack.
Whether this was a well-thought-out plan to launch an attack or a spontaneous statement by a fed-up leader isn’t clear. Whatever it was, he was able to marshal a big majority of Republicans to support the agreement in the House, along with a sizable majority of Democrats. The partisan breakdown of the vote in the Senate is likely to look considerably different.
Establishment Republicans hope the tea party’s influence will diminish as a result of the shutdown debacle. That will depend in part on the tea party’s success in challenging a number of incumbent GOP senators next year, but there’s nothing right now to suggest its adherents are in retreat.
The announced opposition to the budget deal by three Republican senators who are prospective 2016 presidential candidates — Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas — suggests that they at least believe the tea party wing will continue to be a powerful force in charting the GOP’s direction.
GOP strategist John Feehery said the fact that so many Republicans voted for the budget agreement in the House was “hugely significant” and gives members an opportunity to begin to do some repair work. “It allows Congress to do its job,” he said. “They can get the appropriations process going, go home and talk about accomplishments and get their ratings above 10 percent.”
That could help in next year’s midterm elections, which will be influenced as much by Obama’s approval ratings, the state of the economy and judgments about the new health-care law as by the relative popularity of the Republican Party. But whether Boehner’s pushback marks a real turning point inside the party is another matter.
The business community has vowed to become more active in the intraparty battles, but their history of success is spotty. Conservative groups, fueled by some big donors and grass-roots energy, show no sign of pulling back, but will the fire burn as strongly as it has in the past?
In the absence of a consensus, and with both sides committed to the fight, the intraparty conflict will probably shift from the House and Senate floors to future elections. As one GOP strategist put it: “We’re in for a long, bloody conflict. Inside the family, we’re going to duke it out, and the place you duke it out is where you’re supposed to, which is at the ballot box.”
For previous columns by