The latest example of these tensions came at the recently concluded Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, a gathering of social conservatives in Washington that featured many of the leading lights within the GOP.
On Friday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush made the case for immigration reform — not exactly a popular position among many conservatives — by arguing the following: “Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families, and they have more intact families, and they bring a younger population. Immigrants create an engine of economic prosperity.”
The following day, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite who never passes on a chance to jab the establishment, condemned Bush’s pitch. “I think it’s kind of dangerous territory . . . to want to debate this over one race’s fertility rate over another,” Palin said. “And I say this as someone who’s kind of fertile herself.”
The Palin-vs.-Bush brouhaha comes amid a long-running back-and-forth between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) that began when the 2008 GOP presidential nominee referred to the newly elected tea party darling and his ilk as “wacko birds.” Cruz responded that there were “more wacko birds in the Senate than suspected,” and the battle was on.
To be clear, fights between factions of a party are nothing new — particularly when that party is out of the White House, as Republicans will have been for eight straight years by 2016. During the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, the Democratic Party split between its liberal and moderate/conservative wings. The split was reconciled only when Bill Clinton and his “New Democrat” governing philosophy — more trade deals, less strict adherence to organized labor — won the day in 1992. (By the way, look for a similar rift to emerge as Democrats jockey to be their party’s presidential nominee in 2016.)
For now, however, the fight is Republicans’ to deal with, and that makes the party’s attempt to re-brand itself in hopes of winning the White House in 2016 all the more difficult.
“We need to understand we’ve got a long way to go,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry, himself a candidate for president in 2012, said Saturday at the Faith and Freedom gathering.
The paths forward are relatively clear for the party.
Down one are the likes of Cruz and Palin. This is the principle-over-pragmatism path, the absolutism-in-defense-of-core-beliefs-is-no-vice crowd. These are the people who believe that the last two elections were lost by Republicans, not won by Barack Obama. And they believe those elections were lost because the GOP nominated two candidates — McCain and Mitt Romney — who were insufficiently conservative and presented something short of a real contrast with Obama.
Down the other path are people such as Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Both describe themselves as conservatives but practice it in a very different way than the Cruzes and Palins of the party. Bush and Christie, both governors elected in swing-to-Democratic-leaning states, put a priority on finding common ground rather than on holding on to principle at all costs. They view themselves as “doers,” not “talkers.”
There is, potentially, a third path — a third way, if you will (Bill Clinton homage!) — that Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is trying to follow. Rubio came up in national politics as a favorite of the tea party movement — he drove then-Gov. Charlie Crist not just out of Florida’s U.S. Senate primary in 2010 but out of the GOP entirely — who avoids the white-hot rhetoric of Cruz and is deeply involved in trying to forge a workable compromise on immigration reform. (Allies of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would argue he belongs in that third path as well, although he fits more comfortably into the first while Rubio fits far more comfortably into the second.)
Judging from the ongoing tensions between McCain and Cruz, and Palin’s taunt of Bush, the now-public spat within the party is almost certainly going to get worse before it gets better. And that sort of split could complicate the GOP’s efforts to strengthen its hold on the House and take control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections. The 2016 Republican presidential primary should sort out which path the GOP will take, but the question is: At what cost to the party between now and then?