The GOP's Identity Crisis

February 25, 2014 Topic: PoliticsDomestic PoliticsPublic Opinion Regions: United States

The GOP's Identity Crisis

Mini Teaser: Can the Republican Party reinvent itself?

by Author(s): Paul J. Saunders

Of course, any new class must contend with the current order—and establishment figures, not to mention many Republicans on both Wall Street and Main Street, seem newly motivated to fight to preserve the status quo. Notwithstanding the hype surrounding the Tea Party, the establishment has many advantages in such a contest precisely because it is the establishment and thus largely controls the organizational levers of power within the Republican Party, including the Republican National Committee as well as state and local party bodies and a lot of political money. In Congress, establishment-oriented leaders control the allocation of committee posts—which Republican House leaders have now reportedly linked to votes in support of the party’s House leadership. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have also each publicly expressed frustration with outside groups exhorting members of Congress to vote against leadership preferences.

GOP officials can also influence the selection of candidates and seem newly motivated to do so. Charged with securing a Republican majority in the Senate, Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has implicitly rebuked Tea Party groups. He said, “The path to getting a general election candidate who can win is the only thing we care about”—a clear reference to the failed and sometimes loopy Republican Senate candidacies in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, including Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock and Missouri’s Todd Akin. Other Republican officials have expressed similar sentiments.

Influential outside groups are also aligned with the establishment. One pillar of Republican politics, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently helped an establishment Republican defeat a Tea Party candidate in a special election for an Alabama seat in the House of Representatives and, according to the Wall Street Journal, has committed at least $50 million to support establishment candidates in 2014 Republican primaries, particularly the Senate, with the goal of “no fools on our ticket.” State and local business leaders are reportedly supporting establishment candidates as well, including a Republican challenger to incumbent Michigan Tea Party star Representative Justin Amash.

By comparison, FreedomWorks reported consolidated total revenue of just $20 million in its unaudited 2011 annual report, the latest disclosed. The like-minded Senate Conservatives Fund, which does not provide an annual report on its website—audited or otherwise—and states that it limits donations to $5,000, spent $16 million in the 2012 election cycle, according to federal records.

So is the GOP nearing a truly historic collapse brought about by this internecine warfare? Probably not.

Until now, establishments in both major political parties have prevailed far more frequently than insurgent movements. America’s winner-take-all elections structurally privilege a two-party system and marginalize niche groups that cannot build a winning coalition—meaning that emerging political forces can become one of the two dominant parties only by destroying an existing party or, alternatively, by transforming one from within. The Whigs disappeared over 150 years ago, and no major party has disintegrated since. Though the Republican establishment has thus far failed to co-opt the Tea Party and channel its energy—an intensely valuable resource—it may yet succeed. If the Tea Party simultaneously redefines the GOP, it might too.

However, if the two groups continue to fight rather than merging, time favors the Republican establishment. Eventually, Tea Party groups will need not only rhetoric but also practical accomplishments to maintain the support of their donors and voters, and they will need them even more so if they hope to win sufficient power to determine or heavily influence the Republican Party’s agenda, strategy and tactics over time. In a divided party within a divided government, positive accomplishments will require the kind of compromise that many Tea Party figures have thus far rejected. The GOP’s fall 2013 surrender on the debt ceiling after poor handling of an ill-chosen fight and its early 2014 support for a budget compromise illustrate just how difficult it is to sustain a strategy of governance by obstruction.

THE BIGGER problem facing the Republican Party lies outside rather than inside, in defining an agenda to win elections beyond red-state Senate seats and gerrymandered House districts. Intraparty divisions exacerbate this problem by forcing candidates to make statements and adopt positions that alienate potential supporters (a regular problem in GOP primaries) and by muddling the party’s national message (as with the varied formal responses to the president’s last State of the Union address), but disunity is not the main challenge. As Whittaker Chambers wrote of the party in 1958, the real threat to the GOP is that despite its widely supported principles, the Republican Party has failed to define a constructive agenda that can win national support. As a result, according to a December 2013 Gallup poll, just 32 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party—ten percentage points below the share that see the Democrats positively.

Though the reasons for these attitudes are widely discussed, and Republican pollsters and political operatives have studied them extensively, the Republican Party as a whole has been unable to draw shared lessons or come to agreed conclusions about how to proceed. Until recently, Republicans have devoted more time to debating how conservative the party and its candidates should be than to defining what it means to be a conservative in America today and proposing policies that apply conservative principles to public concerns. Republicans must change this if they want to be seen as something other than the party of “no.” Standing athwart history yelling “stop” may sound like a glorious cause, but history almost always wins.

Nothing illustrates Republicans’ failure to “promote a program that means something to masses of people,” as Chambers put it, as clearly as the GOP’s abysmal handling of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Simply put, Republicans have been fighting a losing battle to overturn the law because they were not able to make a meaningful health-care proposal of their own of sufficient appeal either to force compromise or to create a deadlock on Capitol Hill by putting real public pressure on moderate Democrats. In that environment, the president’s imperfect effort was for many Americans better than no effort at all.

The GOP’s inability to produce an attractive alternative to Obamacare was particularly unfortunate because the law’s clear weaknesses provided a very real opportunity for practical reforms. Leaving aside conservatives’ philosophical concerns, as a policy and political matter the Affordable Care Act may well expand access to health care in the future but has been decidedly mixed in its impact on costs, particularly for those who already had insurance. This group makes up a much greater share of the voting population than the uninsured.

Finally, while the jury is still out on the public’s eventual attitudes toward Obama’s health-care plan—and many Republicans clearly hope that its flawed implementation will be a potent weapon in the 2014 midterm elections—Obamacare’s fundamentals appear likely to stick regardless of the election outcomes in 2014 or even in 2016.

Consider whether a Republican-controlled Congress could actually repeal Obamacare in the real world as opposed to the fantasy world of direct mail and online fundraising appeals. If Republicans win the Senate and keep the House in 2014, or win control in both houses while a Democrat follows Obama in the White House in 2016, this would require a veto-proof majority at both ends of the Capitol Building—a remote prospect. But even if Republicans achieve a national-level political trifecta in 2016 by taking the presidency and winning majorities in both houses of Congress, GOP leaders may quickly find that repeal is much more attractive as a campaign issue than a legislative program. A newly elected Republican president would be sorely tempted to discourage repeal, as the divisive effort could easily dominate and define a first term much as the law’s passage did for Obama. Blue-state Republicans, who would mathematically have to make up an important part of any GOP-controlled Congress, would probably be even less enthusiastic. It seems likely that a new Republican president and Congress would have bigger priorities—starting with the economy and jobs.

THE REPUBLICAN Party is ceding considerable territory to the Democrats in other policy areas as well—some much more promising than post-Obamacare health care. While Republicans have been more successful in blocking flawed legislation on energy and climate change (like a cap-and-trade bill to set limits on greenhouse-gas emissions) and have continued to press the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, they have otherwise offered little on energy, a potent issue that routinely leads surveys of the public’s domestic and international policy priorities. Like health care, energy touches Americans deeply in daily life—as we heat or cool our homes, drive to work or to shop, and plug in more and more new electronic gadgets. Because Republicans have offered little on energy policy, Americans believe the Democrats do a better job on energy; a 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 36 percent preferring the Democrats and 26 percent the Republicans, with 18 percent saying that they were “about the same” and 15 percent suggesting that neither would do well. The 33 percent who today see no difference between the parties provide a huge opportunity for Republican ideas and policies, especially when combined with the collapse of President Obama’s misguided “green jobs” agenda.

Image: Pullquote: Republican political leaders must redefine the party as a home for principled but pragmatic problem solvers rather than ideologues.Essay Types: Essay