One thing the government shutdown fight has exposed is the rift within the Republican Party between the blue-blood GOP establishment, which has been called the RINO Establishment, the Country-Club Republicans, the gat-along, go-along crowd and a whole host of other things, and the Tea Party/extremist/Wacko Bird faction.
That rift exists. It has existed for a very long time. It periodically flares up at moments of stress, particularly when the Democrats who happen to be in control of one branch of government or another are pushing the country hard to the left and there is debate about how to counter that push.
But the rift is largely overblown.
Put an “establishment RINO” and a “Tea Party nut” in a room together and ask them about the state of the country, Obama or the big policy issues of the day and you’re going to get almost complete agreement about what is a problem and what would work best to fix it as a matter of policy. Both sides of the rift would generally agree that government is too big, that power should be drained out of Washington where possible, that political correctness is sapping America’s national character, that the hostility to religion the Left is driving has all kinds of negative effects on the country, that we’re enduring the worst presidency in modern times, that Obamacare is unacceptable, that we’ve got to have a strong military, that we need to have control over our borders, that affirmative action is a failure, and so on.
I’ve seen these encounters first hand. The level of agreement is surprising to both sides.
What isn’t agreed upon is the means of achieving the policy aims those two sides of the rift share.
From a Tea Party perspective there is frustration that the RINO establishment simply refuses to put anything at risk to fight the Left. The Tea Party points to Obamacare, which it believes is a completely illegitimate, tyrannical and devastating governmental abuse that will transform America into a faded, declining power with faded, declining people in it, and insists on fighting to the political death to stop it from implementation. Government shutdowns, constitutional crises, civil disobedience – whatever it takes to kill Obamacare, the Tea Party says is well worth it rather than stand by and watch the Left make an American reality out of Vladimir Lenin’s axiom that socialized medicine is the key to a socialist state.
But while the establishment agrees Obamacare is a serious problem and that it needs to be done away with, it also believes that forcing crises will irritate the American people and make it more difficult to achieve the electoral successes it will require in order to have the White House and the Senate – and without control over those bodies getting rid of Obamacare isn’t possible. The establishment also believes that the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare exchanges is a good reason to believe that if the GOP stands on the sidelines and guffaws about the Obama regime’s failure to create a workable program, the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016 will be there for the taking.
And here is where the rift grows.
The truth is, if the two sides actually believed and trusted each other it would be rather easy to fuse the two strategies. There is no reason why a robust assault on Obamacare coupled with a robust criticism of it can’t move public sentiment toward a repeal the of an unpopular law the Democrats ought to be running from with their hair on fire.
But because the establishment has been too timid and inarticulate, and has for too long done such a poor job of selling conservatism to the public, the Tea Party isn’t willing to allow it to bargain on behalf of the conservative movement. The Tea Party doesn’t think the establishment knows how to negotiate from a position of strength.
The Tea Party understands, if only instinctively, that Republican politicians like John Boehner negotiate at a disadvantage against people like Obama or Harry Reid. The Left gets its political figures from community organizers, unions, race-hustlers, trial lawyers and academics, and to the extent those people have negotiation as part of their job portfolios those negotiations have a “win-lose” character to them. To deal with these people involves haggling over how much you will give to them and never what you will get in return. In other words, Harry Reid wants you to give him $100, and offers nothing in return. The Tea Party sees Boehner talk Reid down to $30 and claim victory, and it asks “why do I have to pay that guy $30? Why did you negotiate with him at all?”
And Reid got that $30 because Boehner and most of the rest of the Republican politicians out there came from the business community, where negotiation is something you do all day. But in business, you’ve got to hold to the old poker maxim that you can shear a sheep a thousand times but skin him only once. Meaning, you’re trying to pursue a win-win negotiating strategy – you’re willing to give up something in order to get something in return. That’s how the productive economy works and it’s a virtue to have that mentality when entering negotiations; unfortunately, it only really works when you’re dealing with other responsible business people. When you rub up against the “win-lose” crowd, you’re the sheep who gets skinned. And while in business you can walk away from a bad deal – if nothing else you can go elsewhere when that deal ends – in government you’re stuck with the other side.
And here’s a pretty good summing up of the Tea Party’s thinking about the idea of Boehner negotiating with Obama and Reid to end the shutdown…
John Boehner and his band of merry squishes in the House really are like Charlie Brown running to kick the football and having Lucy Obama yank the ball away time after time. Obama and Reid aren’t going to negotiate anything. If you give in on the CR and the debt ceiling, you will get nothing. But hey, we might get a new Speaker out of the deal.
The establishment recognizes this problem but asks “what can you do about it?” The establishment is largely backed by big business and corporate America, and big business and corporate America can generally adapt to the abuses of the Left and overcome them so long as those abuses come slowly.
And if they come quickly, the establishment believes, the natural physics of American politics will play a part and punish the Left in the next round of elections.
Again, if the two sides trusted each other there is a strategy to be had that would satisfy both – picking smart battlegrounds on which to fight, and coming up with strategies to trap the Left in its avarice on items where negotiations must be had.
But the problem is a lack of talent at the top. The problem is that neither side has thus far developed leaders who can engender the trust of the other side in dealing with the Left.
The establishment has produced a succession of marble-mouthed and/or morally-challenged figures who, while not being completely devoid of merit in some cases, cannot mobilize all factions behind effort to promote policies those sides all agree on. The establishment has given us Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Tim Pawlenty, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, among others – and often the Tea Party, not to mention other parts of the Republican voting base, notices that while they might not be completely devoid of fire in the belly that fire seems directed more inside the tent than out of it.
Meanwhile the Tea Party has tended to galvanize around people like Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Jim Demint and a host of people who are not “political” leaders – Glenn Beck is a good example – who have done more to distance themselves from the GOP establishment than attempt to bring it over to the Tea Party’s point of view. As such, much of what you hear from the Tea Party is an indictment of the establishment and a claim that the Beltway crowd is willing to let the Left destroy the country so long as they’re able to hold on to a junior position within the Capitol elite. This isn’t a very fair accusation, though given some of the political backbiting and infighting which has gone on in Washington it’s understandable.
But it’s also counterproductive. The Tea Party was formed out of a public rejection of Washington politics and the GOP establishment’s inability to counter the abuses of the Left, but while it has the potential to change American politics it isn’t going to be able to do that without making converts of the moderates and centrists – in tactics if not policy – who populate the rest of the party. And fire and brimstone doesn’t move those people.
The Tea Party has managed to infuse the GOP with what talent it does have in Washington of recent vintage, and it has also re-energized some of the people who have been around a while – a great example is Jeff Sessions, the excellent Senator from Alabama. But you don’t send a Rand Paul, Mike Lee or Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate and have them vigorously represent an anti-establishment message without there being a great deal of pushback. And with the Left doing everything it can to marginalize those people and discredit them in front of the establishment, it’s no surprise that the Tea Party’s best leaders are “controversial figures.”
So the challenge for the Pauls, Lees and Cruzes of the world is to bring the Establishment – or if not the Establishment’s political class, at least the moderate voters upon whom it relies for political sustenance – over to the idea that they can represent the party in the larger fight for the American electorate. Cruz and Paul have decided to do this through the use of filibuster advocacy on select issues, and while they’ve engendered a great deal of backbiting from the Jon Cornyns and John McCains of the world they’ve also managed to capture some of the GOP with the passion and intelligence of their arguments. Another Tea Party leader, Marco Rubio, attempted to cross over by joining the Gang of Eight in promoting amnesty, but that was a disaster and Rubio has been trying to recover his good odor with the conservative base ever since.
This is a long-standing problem for the party. Its establishment simply doesn’t produce a strong class of leaders and never has. There have only been three Establishment Republicans able to survive to two terms as president in the past 80 years, and while Dwight Eisenhower generally was able to conclude a successful presidency George W. Bush and Richard Nixon saw their second terms devolve into ignominy. In the meantime only one anti-establishment Republican has ever managed to get the party’s nomination since 1964; that was Ronald Reagan, who ultimately was able to bridge the rift and offer both sides something to shoot for as a leadership model. Reagan’s presidency wasn’t perfect but it was highly successful, and on the whole he was able to conduct negotiations with the Left on a relatively favorable basis without losing his conservative soul.
The establishment argues it’s better to have a so-so Republican presidency than a Democrat one, and points to Barry Goldwater’s lopsided defeat in 1964 as what happens when a crazy anti-establishment figure gets the party’s nomination. But Goldwater’s ideology wasn’t his problem; his skill as a campaigner was, particularly at the time he ran and given the ruthlessness and skill of his opponent.
Ruthlessness and skill, together with salesmanship, could go a long way toward curing the rift. But it doesn’t appear to be in very long supply in the leadership on both sides of it.
And that’s what is killing the party’s chances to capitalize on the disaster of Obama’s presidency.