When Republicans scored their big victory in the midterm election of 2010, the GOP looked like a party on the rise after a devastating pair of losses in 2006 and 2008. Instead, it has become a party in almost permanent disorder, torn by warring factions and near-constant tensions between its establishment leadership and a tea party-infused grass roots.
Now, in the wake of House Speaker John A. Boehner’s stunning announcement Friday that he will resign his seat in Congress at the end of October, the question again arises: Can a party so riven by anger, a party divided over confrontation vs. compromise, actually govern in Washington?
Boehner’s decision to quit, and the suddenness with which the news broke, provided one more piece of evidence of how badly strained the Republican coalition is. His inability to corral his unruly members is legendary and, seemingly, never-ending, a series of “Perils of Pauline” moments that brought temporary truces but never fully resolved the debate about the kind of party Republicans want.
Those divisions have infected the battle for the GOP presidential nomination. Anger at Washington among grass-roots Republicans has turned the party’s nomination contest upside down. In the early autumn of 2015, non-politicians such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are prospering at the expense of those who are governing or have governed at the state level.
A Republican strategist offered a gloomy assessment of the state of the party, writing in an e-mail: “What does it say about the party? That the divisions have never been greater and that the idea of compromising even within your own party is seen as selling out.”
He predicted a long and divisive battle for the nomination and the possibility of a brokered convention in Cleveland next summer to settle it, along with fights over the platform and rules.
Much of this has its roots in the reaction to the election of President Obama and to the agenda he has pursued. The president’s economic and health-care initiatives in 2009 gave rise to the tea party movement, and that movement provided much of the energy that swept Democrats out of power in the House in 2010. The GOP in Washington — and the party overall — has not been the same since.
The anger has fed on itself. Grass-roots Republicans are frustrated that their leaders in Washington have not been more successful in checking Obama or rolling back what he has been able to do. That led to repeated and futile efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It prevented House action on immigration. Two years ago, it boiled over and forced a partial government shutdown.
That shutdown damaged the Republican Party brand, but seemingly did nothing to stop the GOP in the 2014 midterm elections, when the party scored another series of victories by taking control of the Senate and holding key governorships. But even with additional power in Washington, the status quo remained largely unchanged, with grass-roots conservatives irritated with their leaders for not doing more to advance their antigovernment agenda.
Trump’s rise these past few months was unexpected, and it has not gone unnoticed among rank-and-file Republicans in Washington. They can sense the anger he has tapped into and want to associate themselves with it — not with establishment leaders who already disfavored the grass roots. That further undermined Boehner’s fragile standing and no doubt contributed to what happened Friday.
Tea party loyalists and leaders cheered Boehner’s decision to step down, claiming it as a victory for their movement. To them, he is a symbol of all that is wrong with the Washington GOP establishment. They consider him a leader who, instead of finding ways to advance their conservative agenda, capitulated to Obama or to moderates in the party.
Boehner is leaving for the good of his party and presumably out of fatigue at the constant struggle with the rebellious faction in the House. But his departure will hardly resolve the contradictions and divisions that have marked his tenure. A leadership contest will ensue, giving the opportunity for a fresh start in the House. But the new speaker and team will grapple with the same underlying problems — the same irreconcilable issues — that bedeviled Boehner.
Beyond that, no congressional leader can truly take the reins of his or her party nationally. That is reserved for presidential nominees and ultimately presidents. It often has been said that the most successful among them are politicians who define their parties rather than being defined by them.
Who among those now seeking the GOP nomination can do that most effectively — and around what message? The candidate currently at the top of the polls — Trump — promises what the rebellious forces in the GOP most want to hear: that Washington is broken and that only an outsider can fix it. But he offers little in the way of evidence that he can do so.
Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) offers a similar outsider message but with purer conservative convictions than the reality TV star.
Can any of the others in the presidential field — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), to name just three — tap that anger and unhappiness within the party base and still make a case for conservative governing that includes compromise and cooperation with the Democrats?
Republicans have been on a rightward journey since President George W. Bush left office in 2009, and their leaders have been in hot pursuit. The nomination contest of 2012 pushed Mitt Romney further to the right on immigration than was politically sound. The current contest threatens to do the same to the eventual nominee.
There will be a new House speaker long before the party settles on a presidential nominee. And the nomination battle, however it looks today, has twists and turns ahead that will surprise and confound many people.
But the reality is that the Republicans in their current state appear both difficult to lead and divided about where they want to go. To win in November 2016, their nominee will have to show that he or she can lead a party ready and willing to govern.