The truth is that today’s Republican Party looks about as close to homogeneous as a major party in an enormous nation can get. It’s very easy to imagine its differences dissolving rapidly during the next campaign, just as they did when a somewhat similar split appeared to open up during the Clinton presidency.Bernstein's piece is a good reminder that despite all the GOP infighting, the party itself is as ideologically cohesive as any party in American history. In my last post, I suggested that the crisis of the GOP mirrors the problems that destroyed the Whigs and split the Democrats in the decade before the Civil War. By the metrics of partisanship, rhetoric, and political tactics, the comparison holds water. But the driver of politics and extremism in the 1850s (and all the decades preceding) was the political fact of slavery and its uncertain future in a free republic. No such issue, certainly no such uniquely sectional issue, threatens the unity of the current Republican Party. That is essentially Bernstein's point. As he puts it,
I do believe that the Republican Party has become severely dysfunctional, but that matters mainly in governing, not electioneering. And I don’t think the dysfunction is really about internal differences; it’s far more about a combination of perverse incentives provided by the conservative marketplace, along with the unhappy influence of a handful of past Republican leaders.This strikes me as a defensible perspective, but there are a couple questions raised by Bernstein's argument that might be worth pursuing. Are divisions within a political party that have more to do with tactics than policies somehow less threatening to the integrity of the party? The common sense answer, I think, is: Yes, they are less threatening. If all of the GOP opposes new revenue streams (i.e. taxes) to address government debt, then the differences by which they obstruct Democrats from enacting such taxes are probably not such a big a deal.
But common sense answers aren't necessarily useful in the current political climate. What the government shutdown demonstrated is that political tactics have become elevated to the level of ideology. For the GOP it is not enough to advocate for policy positions, like curtailing federal taxes. The political test now is the manner in which a GOPer fights for them. Consider Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man Alex Pareene argues has done more to stymie President Obama than any other Republican. His efforts to work with Harry Reid, end the shutdown, and stop the Republican freefall in the polls has earned him vigorous opposition from conservative groups intent on replacing him with a Tea Party candidate. Time's "Swampland" reported on this endorsement of McConnell's primary opponent by Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund (emphasis mine):
“Matt Bevin is a true conservative who will fight to stop the massive spending, bailouts, and debt that are destroying our country,” SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins said in a statement. “He is not afraid to stand up to the establishment and he will do what it takes to stop Obamacare. We know that winning this primary won’t be easy. Mitch McConnell has the support of the entire Washington establishment and he will do anything to hold on to power. But if people in Kentucky and all across the country rise up and demand something better, we’re confident Matt Bevin can win this race.”It could be that tactics matter, as it turns out, not just in governing but in electioneering too. The other question we ought to ask is if the alignment of the GOP across major policy positions is as unified as Bernstein suggests. Surely there is no single issue like slavery cutting across the political landscape, but there are an array of issues in which the more extremist wing of the GOP has offered different legislative solutions too. Ross Douthat at The New York Times has been making this case for weeks now, most recently with this (emphasis his):
Yet at the same time, to the extent that policy differences are driving the current intra-G.O.P. fight, the populists tend to have 1) decent ideas and 2) a better sense than their establishment rivals of how to brand the party as something other than just a tool of rich people and business interests. Their strategy is disastrous, but their substance has something to recommend it. Which is part of the reason why it isn’t enough, for the Republicans to escape their current cul-de-sac, for the party leadership to “win” and the populist base to “lose” — let alone for the leadership to somehow jettison the base. Instead, somebody, somehow, has to both integrate and purge — leaving the Tea Party’s baggage by the roadside while continuing to speak to populist impulses and taking up populist ideas, and folding both into a strategic vision that’s more connected to political reality than what we’ve seen these last few weeks.Immigration constitutes another fault line. GOP leadership has already made it clear that immigration reform ought to be a priority, especially coming off the exit polls of 2012's election. But in recent days hardliners have decided to scuttle attempts at immigration reform in some kind of adolescent response to losing the government shutdown fight that they had precipitated in the first place. Jonathan Chait for New York's "Daily Intelligencer" could scarcely believe what he was reporting:
It would be one thing if these sources opposed immigration reform on its merits. But they don't. They think immigration reform is a vital necessity. They believe failing to pass some kind of reform will harm America. But they want to do it anyway because they're mad about the shutdown.
All of which points to a conflation of tactics and policy into one aggregate Tea Party brand. Conservative ideology is no longer just a set of beliefs rooted in right wing principle—Conservative ideology is now a manifestation of political actions taken in devotion to right-wing principles. The more extreme the action, the more ideologically true is its author. Bernstein may still be right; that kind of dysfunction may not result in full-bore GOP civil war. Charting a new course toward centrist ideas and reasonable governing compromises may defuse the crisis of the Republican Party. It is certainly conceivable that the GOP struggles on in rump form for a few elections cycles until a new figure reinvigorates the party by banishing the crazies. In fact, I think something along these lines is the most likely outcome.
But a GOP rupture may yet be in the cards... the current attempts to purge the party of the unpure, like (amazingly) Mitch McConnell, almost by definition entails a diminishment in party numbers and, inversely, far more crazed rhetoric and partisanship. Whomever the GOP leaves behind will have to adjust somehow. If that group includes technocrats, big business, and long standing pragmatic conservatives (none of whom really want to join the Democrats), that has the makings of an immediately well-funded and nationally appealing third party movement.