The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Republican Party: A collection of tribes with no leader

If the standoff over the federal budget and debt ceiling have reinforced anything about politics, it's this: Today's Republican Party is an assemblage of tribes with no real leader.

This blunt reality largely explains why a federal government shutdown now in its 15th day rolls on, the risk of default grows more and more real each day, and with time running out, no one really knows what the way out of the fiscal mess will look like.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is at the GOP helm of the negotiations in Congress. But he's not leading so much as being led by his conservative conference. Boehner has for weeks been trying to thread a near impossible needle: placating conservative members while trying to pass a bill that can also clear the Democratic-controlled Senate, or at least bring the two sides closer together. His latest effort failed late Tuesday, with some conservatives expressing disappointment about GOP leadership's proposal. Boehner will have to see if he can pick up the pieces on Wednesday.

Among those displeased with the plan GOP leaders looked to advance: Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of a conservative think tank headed by Jim DeMint, a former conservative senator. DeMint has actively campaigned to defund Obamacare, encouraging the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), whose quest to undo a law that simply can't be undone has complicated Boehner's job.

Heritage is one of many outside groups that now play a role in the political conversation. The power once vested in the Republican National Committee has been redistributed among a patchwork of super PACs, nonprofits and think tanks, many of which have remarkably different agendas.

While the RNC is not what it once was to the GOP, neither is the business community, a traditional Republican ally and dominant policy pacesetter. If it were, the party wouldn't be split over how to end the government shutdown and raise the nation's debt ceiling, both of which business leaders are increasingly worried about -- so much so that the White House has enlisted the help of the business community to end the standoff.

Even if someone stepped up tomorrow and claimed the mantle of leader of the leader of the GOP, they would instantly find that their title would quickly become LINO, or leader in name only. That's because of the remarkably disparate pressure points that motivate the different wings.

To cast-iron conservatives, the fight against Obamacare is the priority, even if it means shuttering the government and inching up to a debt catastrophe. For some centrist Republicans, winning elections is the priority even if it means flexibility on hot-button issues near and dear to conservatives. For Boehner, staying in power as speaker is a major motivator, even if it means repeatedly trying the near-impossible balancing act of placating the political right as he searches for something that might stand a chance of passing the Senate or at least bridging the gap between the two sides.

Democrats are not immune to intra-party struggles. They have their own battles. But they are largely appeared over by President Obama, the party's clear leader. And their spats are nothing on the scale of what the GOP faces, as evidenced by recent polling showing remarkably intra-party discord among Republicans.

Put another way: Who is leading the Republican Party right now? Depends on which Republican Party we're talking about, because there are several different ones right now.