The Republicans: Divided & Scary

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J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with, from left, Republican Senators Roger Wicker and John Barrasso and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn at the Capitol, January 2015

As the new Congress gathered in early January, we were treated to news story after news story about how the Republicans, now in control of both chambers for the first time in eight years, were set to prove that they could “govern.” This was more than an exercise in public relations, though it was that as well. Republican leaders knew they had a problem. They may have prevailed in the 2014 elections, but their party was still seen as too “negative” and obstructionist, and Congress’s approval rating had been hovering at all-time lows in the mid-teens.

The Republicans urgently needed to present a new and more positive face to the public. Their leadership believed that by the 2016 election they had to appear qualified to occupy the presidency. But this goal isn’t so important to a major faction on the far right of their party. Thus the Republicans are riven between pragmatists and purists. The purists are essentially the Tea Party members in Congress who were elected on the pledge that they would oppose any expansion of the federal government and wouldn’t go to Washington to compromise; to the purists compromise dilutes principle.

The forty-some Tea Party members in the House have a mighty force behind them: the large outside movement that buys ads and sends newsletters, plus the more militant talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck who rally the forces against those they deem insufficiently militant. Even Mitch McConnell, whose conservative bona fides were without question, had a Tea Party challenger in 2014.

Thus, the forces for purism are more powerful than their numbers in Congress and are nervously watched by the pragmatists. Ted Cruz has set himself up as the leader of the handful of Tea Party members in the Senate but he also brought pressure on House members last year to back the government shutdown. One of McConnell’s greatest challenges in this Congress is whether he can bring the obstreperous Cruz under control.

Of course, without compromise there cannot be governing, but most of the Tea Party faction are less interested in governing or winning the presidency than in making a statement and keeping their supporters fired up. Also, like the NRA, they’ve figured out that absolute obstruction, outrageous as it may seem to others, can be a winning strategy.

There has been a fair amount of confusion about what exactly the Republican leaders’ goals were when they came to town for the new session. Despite their talk about needing to show that they could “govern,” in reality no party can govern from Congress; they meant that they need to pass positive legislation and not just be known for opposing the president, engaging in obstructive maneuvers, and brinksmanship on the national debt.

McConnell, about to be Senate majority leader, said immediately after the election that in the new Congress there would be no shutdowns and no debt limit crises. He got right down to it in early January, when he commented that if they wanted to win, the Republicans had to show that they weren’t the “scary” party. In other words, what the leaders were mainly discussing concerned process, not substance.

Though the Republican leaders also spoke of wanting to work with the president and show themselves as “positive,” the Republicans’ agenda has been dominated by efforts to repeal, revise, and overturn a great deal of what Obama has achieved through laws and regulatory actions and executive orders. McConnell’s goal was to send a bill a week to the White House and force the president either to sign it, perhaps dividing his party, or veto it—whereupon they will paint him as the one who’s being negative.

The Republican Congress may pass a few substantive proposals, but by and large they won’t be aimed at reaching agreement with Obama. Their differences are too fundamental for that. This isn’t the Republican congressional party of the 1990s, much less the 1960s, nor can it go back there.

One might wonder why the first significant bill the Republican leaders put up for a vote was to force the approval by the president of the completion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, to carry Canadian tar-sand oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast for export. The pipeline is backed by powerful interests, not just in Canada but also the US oil industry, including Exxon and Mobil, as well as labor unions that might receive jobs. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline as possibly having devastating effects because the oil it transports is the dirtiest form of crude and particularly carbon-intensive, while Republicans have argued that it’s a huge job creator and essential to national security. (Most estimates are that the jobs created would last two years.) But the votes taken on the pipeline over the years haven’t really been about those arguments. A great deal in Washington isn’t about what it’s said to be about.

Republicans have pushed votes on Keystone as a way to try to split Obama from the environmental movement and also to embarrass Democrats over the fact that he was taking a long time to say whether or not he’d approve it. (In early January the president let it be known that he’d veto the pipeline.) Thus, the pipeline is a useful election tool. It’s the kind of “hot button” issue that Republican consultants love: by forcing the votes, the Republicans seek to portray Democrats who oppose Keystone as “elitist” supporters of the environment (as opposed to the interests of workers). They ran ads in 2014 portraying Democrats who’d opposed the pipeline as being against jobs and economic growth.

Calling for repeated votes in the House in the last Congress to repeal the health care law had the similar goal of creating a politically useful election issue. Since such a measure has so far failed in the Senate and would be vetoed, why bother? Because each roll call vote has brought in campaign money and kept up the enthusiasm of the activists on the right who are most worked up on this and are most likely to turn out in elections. Since repeal was bound to fail, the Republicans also planned to propose various measures to eliminate parts of the health care law, with the ultimate goal of destroying it. One such bill passed the House two days after it returned.

In less than two weeks in office, the House also voted to strip enforcement provisions from the Dodd–Frank bill to reform financial institutions, and to roll back some of the president’s immigration initiatives, a move that could end in the deportation of millions—this despite the deep concern of Republican pragmatists, including party chairman Reince Priebus, that unless the party can attract a great many more votes of Hispanics and other minorities, its chances in the Electoral College are dim for 2016. Republicans were determined to impose more sanctions on Iran that would undermine the administration’s current negotiations on nuclear capacity. They have instructed their committees to propose a number of bills to overturn regulations adopted during Obama’s first six years, particularly those of the Environmental Protection Agency curbing carbon pollution.

Another way one side can seek to prevail is to change the way of keeping score. On the first day of the session the House adopted an updated form of “voodoo economics” called dynamic scoring: in calculating the cost of tax cuts, assumptions about their possible benefits to the economy are now to be taken into account as well as their price tag. The more optimistic the estimates of benefits (really guesses), the less the tax cuts will be said to cost.

Paul Ryan, a champion of this change and now the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has called the current tax structure an impediment to economic growth. “Economic growth” is the principal goal of the pragmatic Republicans, one that the Democrats also espouse. The problem is that the two sides mean quite different things: cutting taxes, in particular corporate rates, versus raising taxes on the wealthiest and distributing the benefits to the middle class and the poor. (Republicans condemn this as “redistribution.”)

During the Clinton presidency, ten to twenty Senate Republicans were willing to work with the White House to try to negotiate deals on shared goals. McConnell and Obama have said that they can work together on trade—on which the Republicans can get the votes of Democrats, who are divided between the interests of labor, which is often opposed to low-cost imports, and the interests of industries that depend on exports. They can also get Democratic support on infrastructure, though Republican leaders opposed Obama’s stimulus bill in 2009.

Ryan, moreover, has already said that he opposes a proposal that has bipartisan support to raise the gasoline tax, which would replenish the Highway Trust Fund, now running short of money, in order to repair the crumbling highway system. It’s estimated that this country’s investment in infrastructure is at the lowest point in nearly seventy years. As of now, the Republicans haven’t offered their own proposal for repairing infrastructure.

The two parties essentially disagree—far more than they did in earlier decades—on the underlying basis of even those programs that both sides claim to favor, such as reform of the college loan program. The Republicans want control over programs to be located in the states while Democrats want them to be controlled by the federal government. The Democrats want federal standards that will allow them to see that the programs are administered fairly; the Republicans want to give the states more leeway in how they’re run and in allocating benefits. Each side has its constituencies to satisfy. In part what’s involved here is the bitter fight over the Republicans’ efforts to break the power of public employee unions, which support Democrats.

More fundamentally, the Republicans’ position also contains a trace of the old championing of “states’ rights”—code for fending off federal efforts to impose equity in the treatment of the races. “Federal” is now virtually an epithet for Republicans. By contrast, the Republicans who worked with Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton didn’t have such an antipathy to anything called “federal,” and they weren’t under such pressure from outside forces (including big money) to do so.

Since the Republicans now have full control of both the governorships and legislatures of twenty-four states, an all-time high, as well as sixty-six out of ninety-nine state legislatures, their efforts to dismantle Obama’s successes are underway in the states as well as in Washington. Still, some Republican governors elected in 2010, such as John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, recognized after a while that they were too radical at the outset of their term and have tamed their approach. Kansas’s Sam Brownback, whose deep tax cuts broke the state and made the rest of the party nervous, has had to reverse course and call for a tax increase.

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Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images
George W. Bush and Jeb Bush at a presidential campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Florida, 2004

John Boehner continues to be challenged by the Tea Party—both within his caucus and outside. To the radical right, his unforgivable sins have been to try to avert (unsuccessfully in the fall of 2013) government shutdowns and his willingness to make a deal with Obama on the budget. In the last Congress his caucus forbade him to have any further negotiations on his own with Obama.

Traditionally, House speakers are reelected by their parties unanimously. The twenty-four votes against Boehner this year were without precedent, all the more striking since the opposition to him was divided among three candidates and was poorly led. Even more Republicans are set to obstruct Boehner on issues that come to the floor, possibly forcing him to seek help from the Democrats, which will only further inflame the far right.

Boehner has had to make hazardous deals in order to retain his enormous gavel. Thus, he chose the heretofore obscure Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, as House whip in order to pull into the leadership someone with close ties to members on the far right. The revelation that in 2002 Scalise had addressed a group headed by Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke set off the kind of kerfuffle Washington specializes in (lots of noise and coverage, usually but not always fleeting), until Boehner decided that it would be less dangerous to ride out the Scalise crisis than to dump him, gambling that there’d be no more revelations of indefensible behavior. The episode was an uncomfortable reminder to the Republicans of the risks they’ve taken by playing to anti-black and anti-minority sentiment in order to maintain their electoral strength.

The Republican Party hasn’t always been so entangled in the race issue; but in modern times it became dependent on winning the anti-black vote in order to win the Electoral College. This was carried out through some overt actions and policies and also ones couched in winks and nods and “dog whistles.” Part of the code was to be against “big government”: this can of course be a sincerely held philosophy, but it also overlaps with opposing programs that are aimed at helping blacks, or are seen that way, e.g., food stamps. Who can forget Rick Santorum’s line in Iowa in 2012: “I don’t want to make blaaaah people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”

Following the New Deal, the once solidly Democratic South was ready for the Republican Party. Southerners had already begun to vote Republican during the New Deal; later, there formed in Congress the “conservative coalition” of conservative midwestern and western Republicans and southern Democrats that had to be overcome to win passage of civil rights and Great Society legislation.

In 1964 Barry Goldwater’s candidacy for president took this new arrangement a step further by cultivating southern Democrats. Notably, Goldwater, an economic conservative in the tradition of his party but also a libertarian, voted against Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Previously he had supported lesser civil rights measures.) He also advocated protecting states’ rights and spoke out against Brown v. Board of Education. Of the six states Goldwater carried, five were in the Deep South and the sixth was his home state of Arizona.

As Lyndon Johnson foresaw, his push for civil rights legislation drove southern Democrats into the Republican Party in large enough numbers to change the Electoral College map. But it took Richard Nixon to see and seize the opportunity to institutionalize an appeal to racial prejudice in the South and elsewhere, through the “Southern Strategy,” by among other things slowing down integration of schools. The strategy also appealed to blue-collar workers in the Northeast and Northwest who were opposed to “forced bussing.” This was expressed in code as favoring “law and order” and opposing “crime in the streets.”

Ronald Reagan continued the tradition of Republican nominees sending signals to the South when he opened his 1980 presidential campaign in Neshoba, Mississippi, close by the town of Philadelphia, the site of the murder of three civil rights workers, with the theme of “states’ rights.”

The Republican strategist Vin Weber, a former member of Congress and now a prominent lobbyist respected by people in both parties, pointed out to me that the transformation of the Republican Party could be seen in the fact that in 1960 Nixon chose as his vice-presidential running mate Henry Cabot Lodge, a Boston uber-Brahmin, while in 1968 he selected Spiro Agnew, the governor of Maryland, who to the extent that he was known at all was most famous for confronting civil rights protesters.

When Nixon’s chosen successor, Gerald Ford, ran for the presidency in 1976, he was forced to dump his vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, only two years after he’d chosen him. Ford hadn’t realized how much the party had changed. Weber says, “The combination of southern conservatives who gravitated toward the Republican Party over the racial issue and traditional northern conservatives left the moderate and liberal Republicans overwhelmed.”

In 1975, Paul Weyrich, a leader of what was then termed the “new right,” told his colleagues that he was going to travel to Lynchburg, Virginia, to meet with a Baptist minister whom he thought he could entice into politics. In 1980 Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority appeared as if out of nowhere at the Republican convention to back Reagan, who had nearly defeated Ford for the nomination in 1976. The Republican Party hasn’t been the same since. The Christian right has exerted tremendous influence on the party’s politics, particularly in its primaries, especially on social issues. This has bedeviled the Republicans’ presidential nominating system because the Christian right is particularly strong in the early contests in Iowa and South Carolina, creating problems for the nominee in the general election.

Gradually the congressional Republican Party, while lagging behind the presidential party, also continued to move to the right. The “Gingrich revolution” of 1994 wasn’t just a stunning triumph over the Democrats, but also an assault on mainstream Republicans. The Senate, taken over that year by the Republicans, was led by the more centrist Bob Dole. When he resigned in 1996 to run for the presidency Dole was succeeded as majority leader by Trent Lott of Mississippi—who was ultimately ousted for lavishing excessive praise on the former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and his segregationist platform.

The Tea Party’s guiding passion was limited government, but it also continued the political purge of establishment Republicans. As far as these economic populists were concerned, the traditional wing of the Republican Party was not to be trusted. Tea Party members are primarily white, male, better off, and more highly educated than the general populace. The Tea Party was set off by a vehement reaction to TARP, the proposal by the Bush administration with bipartisan support to bail out banks whose practices had instigated the deep recession. (Many Tea Party people were upset with Bush for presiding over a steep increase in government spending, including two wars that weren’t paid for.)

The Tea Party’s anger at TARP carried over into the Obama administration and was aimed also at the stimulus bill and then health care reform, which the Tea Party portrayed as a “government takeover” of people’s health care. The large number of Tea Party members elected to Congress in 2010 both strengthened the congressional Republican Party—allowing it to reclaim the House—and bedeviled it.

Though it was less successful electorally in 2014, the Tea Party is still in a position to cause big problems for the pragmatic congressional leaders, particularly in the House, not least because of its perfervid opposition to liberalization of immigration, combined with antipathy toward and fear of the growing numbers of minorities in this country. Not only racism but nativism is alive.

In its mistrust of the Republican Party, the Tea Party took to challenging the renomination of such seemingly secure senators as Bob Bennett of Utah (successful), Richard Lugar of Indiana (successful), and Thad Cochran of Mississippi (almost). The complaint against these men wasn’t that they were too liberal but that, as committee chairmen and leaders, they were part of the Washington establishment. In 2014 numerous Republicans up for reelection moved to the right to stave off a Tea Party challenge. Weber says, “It’s definitely a more conservative party since 2010.”

Fortunately for the party, most of its incumbents up for reelection in 2014 were from the South and West and could safely move to the right in the primaries without jeopardizing their position in the general election; but this strategy could prove more difficult for several Republicans who are up for reelection in 2016 in states in the Midwest and East. In any event, the Tea Party can continue to make candidates tread very carefully in their voting in Congress and in their nomination contests, hewing to a narrow range of safe subjects.

To offset the power of the Tea Party in the nominating process, in 2014 a countermovement began on the part of national Republican leaders, with major participation by the US Chamber of Commerce. This was largely an effort to keep the party from nominating oddballs doomed to defeat, who had cost the party six seats in 2010 and 2012, but it was also aimed at protecting establishment figures. But the Chamber’s involvement wasn’t an unmixed blessing, since it’s seen as representing big business—the dread establishment—and its support of Eric Cantor was a factor in his surprise primary defeat in 2014. The effort to ward off screwball candidates largely succeeded (which is not to say that the process produced members entirely in the mainstream). The national party and the Chamber, as well as other establishment forces, rescued Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, as well as Thad Cochran, from strong challenges from their right.

As has almost always been the case, in the end, the presidential candidate will define the party in 2016—and for all the speculation that will go on from now until then, who will be nominated, much less elected president, is unknowable. We waste an amazing amount of time on speculation that’s futile, since a candidate may or may not wear well, or might screw up in a way that affects the outcome. Moreover, the polls were off in 2012 and to a greater extent in 2014. Events can upset calculations.

At least fifteen people have indicated that they will or might run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Not all of them are likely to, but there’s no harm in getting one’s name out there, which among other things can prove quite lucrative. Candidates will have to figure out how to win the early contests dominated by the Christian right and still be able to win in November. Jeb Bush has publicly expressed his concern about this. When he let it be known early in January that he was serious about running for the nomination, this seemed to many to settle matters: he would be formidable in gathering the necessary money and network of skilled operatives. Not everyone, including Mitt Romney, agrees that the familiarity of the Bush family name is an unalloyed advantage.

A sign of what’s happened to the Republican Party is that while Bush is considered a mainstream candidate, according to Republican pragmatists who favor him—he is not only more conservative than either his father or his brother, but more conservative within the spectrum of the current Republican Party than Ronald Reagan was within the party of his time. In fact, Scott Reed, a longtime Republican operative who was involved in Reagan’s reelection campaign in 1984, says, “I’m not sure that Ronald Reagan could be nominated today.”

At the same time that the possible establishment candidates—Bush and Romney—and perhaps some governors are circling one another and potentially dividing the donors and the mainstream vote, several candidates on the Christian right will also be battling it out, possibly dividing the votes of their wing of the party. Rand Paul will be weaving his own iconoclastic, peculiar blend of conservatism, libertarianism, and antipathy to foreign involvements (and trying to shake some past flirtations with racism). Paul is clever and supple; much of the political press admires him for being “interesting”; but that’s not the same as having depth and steadiness.

At this point handicapping the race for the Republican nomination may be an interesting exercise, but it’s useless. Also unknowable is just how the congressional Republicans will handle themselves in the next few years. More than the Republican Party and its presidential candidates have a stake in this. We all do.

—January 21, 2015