Hello August. Goodbye Congress. Lawmakers are fleeing back to their home districts to mind-meld with their constituents. It's a dull time in Washington itself but a month of potential political potency: Interest groups and pols alike are angling for position, hoping to mobilize voter voices to set them up for the big fall fights on issues like spending, immigration and the implementation of Obamacare. Recall four years ago that the tea party movement had its coming out in the hot summer of anti-Obamacare "town hall" meeting protests. It's possible that this summer will mark a turning point hastening the return of that movement and its allies to the GOP's fringe.
That's because the Republican civil war is growing at least in part as the GOP's realist wing increasingly expresses its impatience and disgruntlement with the party's being under the thrall of its orthodox wing.
This isn't a case of moderates versus conservatives so much as realists against fanatics. The former group – many of whom are staunch conservatives – have their eyes on medium and long-term political and demographic trends and are focusing on how to start winning national elections again. On the other side are the forces ascendant in the GOP, the conservatives who prize philosophical purity and governing inflexibility. This is the plurality of the Republican Party identified in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that thinks congressional Republicans too easily accommodate Obama – in contrast with the 56 percent of adults overall who see the party as too inflexible – this at a time when the public's top complaint about Washington is gridlock.
The major front on which the internecine fight has unfolded so far has been the fight over comprehensive immigration reform, a battle that veteran Republican strategist John Feehery told The Atlantic last month was "the fight for the soul of the party." Hispanics have already played a key role in the last two presidential elections and demographic trends dictate that their role will only grow. The party realists – ranging from the likes of John McCain and Karl Rove to Haley Barbour and Grover Norquist –understand the need to deal with the politics as they are and get on the right side of Hispanics, or at the very least stop their bleeding with the group.
Arrayed against the realists is the GOP's nativist strain, represented on immigration by Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose every utterance seems to hit the ugly intersection of base-rallying and Hispanic-baiting. He recently drew near-universal opprobrium for claiming that the children of undocumented aliens coming across the U.S.-Mexico border have "calves the size of cantaloupes" which they developed from carrying endless amounts of drugs. That even drew condemnation from House Republican leaders. But remember that the only major immigration-related legislation the House passed this year – an amendment gutting Obama's "Dream Act" executive order halting the deportation of people who illegally entered the country as young children – was a King bill.
While the hard-line conservatives often proclaim the American people's opposition to a path to citizenship, polls tell a different story. The most recent CBS poll, for example, found that 78 percent of Americans (including 70 percent of Republican voters) favor a path to citizenship conditioned on meeting requirements like a waiting period and paying fines and back taxes. But the party's dominant, inflexible base is keeping the GOP House on the wrong side of that 78 percent.
That's puzzling but not as much as the fanatics' latest quixotic fight. A dozen GOP senators have signed a letter vowing to shut down the government unless Obamacare is defunded, and more than 60 House Republicans have signed a missive along the same lines. This is a foray into legislative fantasy land. There's literally no plausible scenario under which President Obama signs a bill defunding his signature domestic legislative accomplishment.
But the fanatics on the right talk about it as if it's a real possibility. And as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn – no northeastern moderate – told the Washington Post's Sarah Kliff last week, "This is misleading the conservative base because it's not achievable, and all it will do in the long run is dispirit the base. This is a failed strategy for conservatives."