The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These two quotes explain the tea party vs. GOP establishment battle

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For an hour on Wednesday in Washington, the tea party and the GOP establishment debated -- literally.

Club for Growth president Chris Chocola and Main Street Partnership head Steve LaTourette sparred over the direction of the party at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. (You can read a full account of the debate over on Post Politics.) One exchange was particularly telling and neatly summed up the divide that has defined the party during the past two election cycles.

Here it is:

LaTourette: "You have to find the things that are doable, without violating your conscience and your principles, and get it done. And this notion that you're going to vote 'no' always to appease your scorecard or Freedomworks' scorecard -- that may resonate in front of certain audiences, but it isn't governing."

Chocola, a bit later: "I had this conversation with a highly-placed staffer at one of the party committees. They said, 'What's the difference between acting on party principle and acting on party building?' And I said, 'If you had to ask the question, that you think those are two different things, I don't have to answer the question.'"

Shorter version:

LaTourette: Pragmatism is the key to a stronger GOP.

Chocola: Purity is the key to a stronger GOP.

Throughout the debate, not only did Chocola and LaTourette each make the case that his approach is better from a governing perspective, but each also argued that his view is best for the future direction of the Republican Party.

LaTourette lamented the money that conservative groups have spent over the years to take down moderate GOP incumbents that could have been spent to defeat Democrats. If only that money had been used differently, maybe Republicans would not have lost their majorities, he seemed to be suggesting.

Chocola shook his head at Republicans' resistance to reforming Social Security when the GOP controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush. If only that power had been used differently, maybe Republicans would not have lost their majorities, he seemed to be suggesting.

This is the center of the debate. It's important to keep it in mind this year as the conversation plays out on the campaign trail, since half the Republican senators running for reelection are facing primary challengers, and contested primaries are brewing in key House races.

The Republican Party, coming off of two straight presidential election losses, faces an uncertain future. Both the tea party wing and the moderate establishment wing think they have the cure.