The Gloves Are Off

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Last week’s bipartisan budget deal was more than a ceasefire in the fiscal war between Republicans and Democrats. It also led to the first shot being fired in the long-awaited, long-postponed civil war within the Republican Party.

Emboldened by recent Tea Party defeats in special elections held in Alabama and Louisiana, and by polling data showing that the October shutdown of the federal government was deeply unpopular with voters, House Speaker John Boehner used the budget agreement as a pretext to come out swinging against the Tea Party wing of his party.

According to sources who spoke to The New York Times and other media outlets, in a meeting of House Republicans held on Dec. 11 Boehner castigated advocacy groups like Heritage Action for America and the Senate Conservatives Fund: “They are not fighting for conservative principles. They are not fighting for conservative policy. They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations.” These accusations in private were followed by Boehner’s public denunciation of the same groups for opposing the deal worked out between House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan and his Democrat counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington. “I just think they’ve lost all credibility,” he said of the groups at a press briefing on Dec. 12. Implicitly of course Boehner was also criticizing the Tea Party supporters in his own caucus, as well as Ted Cruz and Co. over in the Senate. The smell of blood is in the air; the establishment’s fight to take back the GOP has begun in earnest.

At the same time the Speaker was attacking the far right, the executive director of the House Republican Study Committee, Paul Teller, was fired for leaking the content of private conversations to conservatives opposed to the party establishment. The dismissal amounts to a first step to wrest control of the Republican agenda from those sympathetic to the Tea Party and place it firmly in establishment hands.

So far the Tea Party and affiliated groups have responded with rhetoric only. It is difficult to see what they can actually do to hurt the establishment without damaging their own cause. They remain a minority — albeit an important one — within a minority, and as such can only go so far without committing political seppuku. It may very well be, however, that they will prefer to die “honorably” rather than compromise with the establishment. True believers rarely yield. How fanatical the Tea Partiers truly are will become clear over the next year or two.

The establishment is seeking to control the agenda and put forward candidates who will enable the Republicans to hold the House and win the Senate in 2014. It also wants to smooth the path for an establishment candidate (Scott Walker, or Jeb Bush, or perhaps Paul Ryan, who declared himself for the establishment when he put his name on last week’s budget deal) to gain their party’s nomination for president in 2016.

At the moment the tide is running with Boehner and the establishment. But the establishment’s ability to impose its vision upon the GOP is yet to be demonstrated. November’s special election in Louisiana, for example, was by no means a clear-cut establishment victory. And it is far from certain that the establishment, even if it triumphs in the intramural battle with the Tea Party, can win a majority of the electorate for its agenda. Demographic trends will continue to shrink the Republican vote, despite efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to suppress Democrat turnout. The recent decline in the Democratic brand has been caused by the disastrous rollout of Obamacare; there is no indication that it represents a secular trend.

In any case, the battle between Republicans has been truly joined, and it should be fun to watch. Pass the popcorn, please.

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