Saturday, October 12, 2013

We could be witnessing the death throes of the Republican Party

I once wrote about lobbying, and this week I called some Republicans I used to talk to (and some that they recommended I talk to) about the effect the shutdown is having on the Republican Party in Washington. The response I got was fear of Republican decline and loathing of the Tea Party: One lobbyist and former Hill staffer lamented the “fall of the national party,” another the rise of “suburban revolutionaries,” and another of “people alienated from business, from everything.” There is a growing fear among Washington Republicans that the party, which has lost two national elections in a row, is headed for history’s dustbin. And I believe that they are right to worry.

The battle over the shutdown has highlighted the cracks and fissures within the party. The party’s leadership has begun to lose control of its members in Congress. The party’s base has become increasingly shrill and is almost as dissatisfied with the Republican leadership in Washington as it is with President Obama. New conservative groups have echoed, and taken advantage of, this sentiment by targeting Republicans identified with the leadership for defeat. And a growing group of Republican politicians, who owe their election to these groups, has carried the battle into the halls of Congress. That is spelling doom for the Republican coalition that has kept the party afloat for the last two decades.

American party coalitions are heterogeneous, but they endure as along as the different groups find more agreement with each other than with the opposition. After Republicans won back the Congress in 1994, they developed a political strategy to hold their coalition together. Many people contributed to the strategy including Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Paul Coverdell, Paul Weyrich, and Ralph Reed, but the chief architect was probably Grover Norquist, a political operative who, along with Rove and Reed, came of age in the early Reagan years. The strategy was based on creating an alliance between business, which had sometimes divided its loyalties between Republicans and Democrats, and the array of social and economic interest groups that had begun backing Republicans.

In weekly meeting held on Wednesdays at the office of his Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist put forth the idea that business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), but also including the specialized trade associations, should back socially conservative Republican candidates, while right-to-life or gun rights organizations should back tax cuts and deregulation. What would bind the different parts together was a common opposition to raising taxes, which Norquist framed in a pledge he demanded that Republican candidates make. Business could provide the money, and the single-issue and evangelical groups the grassroots energy to win elections.

The strategy worked reasonably well, especially in House races. The Chamber and NFIB became election-year arms of the Republican Party. In Congress, a succession of leaders, including Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay, and Roy Blunt, followed the strategy. Gingrich initially overreached, and DeLay took ethical end-runs, but by the time John Boehner became Minority Leader in 2007, it had been refined. Its economic approach consisted of promoting cuts in taxes, spending, and regulation. Boehner, as lobbyists close to him explained to me, wanted to use the battle over continuing resolutions and the debt ceiling to achieve incremental changes on these fronts. He did not contemplate shutting down the government or allowing the government to default on its obligations.

But Boehner was forced to adopt the more extreme strategy. Norquist blames Cruz. “Boehner had a strategy,” Norquist told me, “but Ted Cruz blew it up.” That is, however, giving Cruz too much credit (or blame) for the result. Cruz did help convince House Republicans that if they linked passage of a continuing resolution to repealing Obamacare, he could get the votes in the Senate to follow suit. But Cruz was following a script that had been developed earlier. What has happened over the last two months, leading to the shutdown, and political paralysis in Washington, is the result of deeper factors that have put Norquist’s entire “center-right” strategy in jeopardy.

Since the late 1960s, America has seen the growth of what the late Donald Warren in a 1976 book The Radical Center called “middle American radicalism.” It’s anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-big business andanti-labor; it’s pro-free market. It’s also prone to scapegoating immigrants and minorities. It’s a species of right-wing populism. It ebbed during the Reagan years, but began to emerge again under the patrician George H.W. Bush and found expression in support for Ross Perot and for Pat Buchanan with his “peasants with pitchforks.” And it undergirded the Republican takeovers of Congress in 1994. It ebbed during George W. Bush’s war on terror, but has re-emerged with a vengeance in the wake of the Great Recession, Obama’s election and expansion of government, and continuing economic stagnation.

In his current column in The New York Times, Tom Edsall cites the extensive polling evidence for this rising anger. According to a Pew survey in late September, anger against the government “is most palpable among conservative Republicans” and overlaps with Republicans who “support the Tea Party.” But as with the Perot and Buchanan voters, these conservatives direct their anger equally at Republican and Democratic leaders. According to another Pew survey, 65 percent of the Republicans vote in primaries “disapprove of Republican leaders in Congress.” They see Republican leaders as being complicit in whatever they find wrong with Washington.

This anti-Washington sentiment, which is loosely identified with the “Tea Party,” has overshadowed and transformed grassroots Republicanism. Republican leaders like DeLay were able to keep the evangelicals and other social conservatives in line by battling gay marriage or late-term abortions. But as I recounted three years ago, many of these social issue activists have been absorbed into the Tea Party’s anti-government, anti-establishment ethos. In their current report on the GOP, based on focus groups, the Democracy Corps affirms this conclusion. Evangelicals, the report says, “think many Republicans have lost their way” and that the party leadership “has proved too willing to ‘cave’ to the Obama agenda.” They identify with the Tea Party groups (even though they may disagree on social issues) because they see them “standing up and pushing back.”  

During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, these kind of sentiments were directed at moderates like House Minority Leader Robert Michel or Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, but they are now aimed at erstwhile conservatives like Mitch McConnell and Boehner. The new grassroots Republicans are Warren’s middle American radicals. They don’t necessarily have clear overall objectives. They do want to blow up government—whether by eliminating the debt or repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. And whatever they want to do, they want done immediately and without compromise. And they regard those like Boehner who compromise and are willing to settle for incremental changes as “RINOs”—Republicans in name only.


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