The irony of the Republican Party's success in blocking the Democratic Senate and Democratic president is that the party itself is being blocked in the same way: a committed, uncompromising minority stands in its way. But it's not always the same minority. The Republican Party is in an increasingly obvious struggle over its identity — one with its roots in the voters that comprise it.
The most public split was the very public tiff between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. If you missed it, last week Christie bashed those in his party who critique the NSA's surveillance, suggesting that concerns over the program were "esoteric" ones that wouldn't hold up in the face of those who'd lost loved ones on 9/11. Paul responded by calling Christie the "king of bacon" for his push for relief following Hurricane Sandy. Then Paul asked Christie to get a beer with him, and Christie declined, and so on. Perhaps a bit further down in its article than was warranted, Politico summarized the real problem:
In some respects, the Christie-Paul blowup is a case study in the Republican Party’s internal divisions: The two men hail from such different wings of the GOP, and both are so nationally ambitious, that there is little short-term risk in escalating their rivalry.
The "different wings" part of that is key. Christie's (relative) social moderation and support for the (limited) power of government represents the old wing of the Republican party. Paul's (relative) social conservatism and nouveau libertarianism is the new breed, an evolution of his Tea Party roots for the national stage. This is the sort of thing that often gets worked out in a presidential primary. In 2012, however, the party focused on getting rid of Barack Obama in lieu of identifying its own direction. Mitt Romney, from the Christie strain of Republicanism, tried on the Paul strain during the primaries. The mess that resulted needs no further explanation. But it meant that the party didn't try to bridge that gap, pushing off the debate until 2016. Which is why Christie and Paul have already taken it up.
And it means that it's not really their fault. In a poll conducted by Pew Research released on Wednesday, that split is immediately apparent. Pew asked Republican voters about how the party is faring and how it might need to change. Three sets of responses are worth pulling out.
In order, the charts show that:
- More than two-thirds of Republican voters think the party needs major change,
- Sixty percent of voters think that change needs to be a new set of positions, and
- Fifty-four percent think those positions should be more conservative while 40 percent think they should be more moderate.
See the problem? And it gets worse — respondents disagreed widely on even bedrock positions of the Republican Party. They were split on whether or not the party's positions on abortion, gay marriage, and guns were too conservative. Only on government was there broad agreement. By a four-to-one margin, Republicans thought the party needed to be more conservative on government spending.
Even on that, though, Capitol Hill Republicans are fighting. A weird procedural hiccup yesterday forced leadership in the House — the Republican-led chamber were the party's rifts are most commonly apparent — to shift its approach to key votes on a budget measure. It was largely insider stuff, but for observers like Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler, it was revelatory. In short, the party couldn't figure out how to cobble together votes that would maintain Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin's budget proposals.
[I]t raises much bigger, existential questions for the Republicans as a national party. If they can’t execute key elements of their governing agenda, even just to establish their negotiating positions opposite the Democrats, what can they do, and what argument can they possibly make for controlling more (or all) of Washington?
In March, we made a map of GOP infighting. This week, we made a new version — which is far more complex. Until the Republican party re-coalesces, those charts probably aren't going to be getting much simpler. In other words, for the GOP, the 2016 primaries can't come fast enough.