The Coming GOP Crackup

Conservatives are too busy fighting themselves to advance their agenda.

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The internal debate among conservatives over using the continuing resolution to fund the federal government as a means to undo the Affordable Care Act – better known as Obamacare – indicates to some observers that the Republican Party is headed for what conservative columnist, editor and raconteur R. Emmett Tyrrell might call "a coming crackup."

Not only did the broad swath of conservative leaders fail to reach a consensus on what the strategy concerning the CR should be, many argued in all seriousness that a strategy was not needed. This of course brings to mind the old saw about how "if wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

Strategies are always needed, as are visions, projects and tactics. Frustrated by lack of electoral success against a president they perceive as weak, even feckless, conservatives are producing a circular firing squad from which no one will emerge unscathed.

The coalition carefully crafted around former President Ronald Reagan's three pillars – a strong national defense, support for traditional American values, and the need for limitations on government to produce a continually robust economy – is coming apart.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The party's love affair with ideas and with reform of government has been supplanted by a lust for power. Those who think they should be in charge think the pathway forward involves the use of raw political muscle and have as a primary motivation punishing so-called apostates. The conservative movement still wants to take scalps when engaged in political warfare, but some seem more interested in obtaining the scalps of potential and former allies than those that belong to, for lack of a better word, the enemy.

What happened during the August congressional recess is instructive. Money was raised from conservative donors large and small and spent on activities aimed at moving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and other members of the GOP congressional leadership to use the upcoming CR to "defund" Obamacare.

The effort may have borne fruit as first Boehner and then McConnell got on board with the idea of offering up a CR that would enable the GOP to block implementation of Obamacare, but it was fruit of the bitterest kind. The same activists who did so much to influence the GOP leaders did little to put pressure on any of the Democrats who must face the voters in November 2014.

The stresses on the Republican leadership coupled with the free ride given to vulnerable Democrats produced a situation in which the Senate's continued support of Obamacare became inevitable. Unlike President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid never flinches. He knew no Democrat would break ranks on the issue. The advocates of the "defund" strategy argued a mass uprising of the electorate against the unpopular Obamacare law would occur – but it never came.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

The Republicans have ended up arguing amongst themselves, while the Democrats have hung together. The Senate rejected the first House Republican proposal and the second and the third and a fourth before the fiscal year ended, and the government was shut down, in name anyway, if not in fact.

It is time someone stated the obvious. Divisions among conservatives are adversely affecting the course of events in Washington, where the party appears discouraged and disorganized.

The same is not true outside the Beltway. The Republicans hold a majority of governorships, of state legislative chambers, and are a force to be reckoned with in contests for statewide and local office from the East Coast to the West Coast and from the North to the South. This is not to suggest they are winning everything – or even most things – as much as it suggests that the potential to create a powerful, national political force exists when everyone does their homework and all the oars are being pulled in the same direction at the same time.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Look around. Heavily unionized Indiana and Michigan are now "right-to-work states." Kansas is close to abolishing the state income tax. Two extreme anti-gun lawmakers were recently recalled in liberal hotbeds in Colorado. Internal polling by the campaign of former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan, the drastically underfunded GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in the upcoming New Jersey special election, shows him pulling within six points of the supposedly unbeatable Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who just launched a negative attack against his opponent whom he was supposed to beat easily.

Somewhere along the line, too many conservative activists and donors have forgotten that. It is all well and good to run a conservative candidate against a more moderate one in a congressional primary, but only if that candidate can reasonably be expected to have a chance at winning the seat that they are campaigning for in the U.S. House or Senate.

Reagan wisely observed, on more than one occasion, that his 80 percent friend was not his 20 percent enemy. In a country run through coalition politics inside a two-party system, this is important. Politicians must take their allies where they find them. In America, the drive for ideological or philosophical purity conflicts with the ability to get things done, to assemble a force large enough to win elections or to carry the day in legislative fights.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: John Boehner, the Shutdown and Our Real 'Spending Problem'
  • Read Mercedes Schlapp: Obama’s Shutdown Strategy: Ignore Republicans and Don’t Negotiate
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