The Republicans: Divided & Scary

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,…

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