Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner have written a very reasonable explanation of their party’s present difficulties. They have nicely summarized the most salient strands of the problem and pointed toward common sense remedies rooted in historical precedents. There is much to recommend in their counsel. Unfortunately, they may be underestimating the difficulty of bridging the internal divide in the Republican Party of 2013 by over-estimating the continuity of the legal, political, and institutional landscape.
They assume that the present schism in their party is nothing new. Like the Democratic Party that reinvented itself in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, Gerson and Wehner see their party doing the same. The Democratic Party survived its own radicalization by far leftists, and so too, they argue, will the Republican Party survive the present Tea Party insurgency. The formula is simple enough. Republicans just have to tame the Tea Party the way the Democrats tamed their most strident progressives, by presenting them with a classically rational ultimatum; play ball or lose the game. Moving the Democratic Party to the center was the only rational way for progressives to stay in the game. According to Gerson and Wehner, Republicans today need their own version of this approach to incentivizing moderation. Gerson and Wehner describe the work of the the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC), which facilitated the moderation of the Democratic Party, as a useful example to emulate.
However, the DLC approach did not require left wing extremists to surrender any of their substantive goals, nor did it require a direct assault on the legitimacy of the modern welfare state. Democrats like Clinton could adopt a “mend it, don’t end it” approach with their base. The welfare state didn’t need to be dismantled, only reformed. The far left was willing to accept programmatic compromise that preserved both their substantive policy goals and their broad assumptions about the role of government. They were willing to make necessary concessions because doing so did not involve renunciation of any of their values or the dismantling of the institutions through which they pursue their goals.
How much of this can be said of present day “Tea Partiers?” The American electorate has never completely rejected the left’s perspective or the post New Deal concerns and configuration of government, they merely reacted to what they saw as over reach. The Republican Party’s problem children are a profoundly different lot. They are not trying to “preserve” their philosophy of government. They are trying to resurrect it. They are not defending moral and cultural values firmly embraced by the majority of their countrymen. They are trying to defend moral and cultural values that are increasingly rejected by the public at large. They are fighting a two front war of sorts; a political/institutional struggle that requires the destruction of institutional norms and procedures that have been in place for at least half a century, and an even more uphill fight to resurrect a set of socio-cultural assumptions that are strongly antithetical to an increasing majority of Americans.
I think the that “saving” the Republican Party may require a very different response to its internal party insurgents. The Democrats divided their insurgents, coopting some and marginalizing the rest. Republicans don’t really have that option. Divide and concur of the Tea Party will be more difficult. The Tea Party has a number of weapons in its fight for influence in the Republican Party, that its leftist counterparts did not have.
The Tea Party’s institutional power and position gives them very significant weapons in their fight. Our decentralized political and policy process is much easier to thwart- by design- than it is to energize. They have considerable leverage because, unlike their left wing counterparts in the Democratic Party, their goals do not require the institutions of government to work better, they require those institutions to stop working. Obstructionism serves their interests. Furthermore, decisions of the current Supreme Court, especially in the area of campaign finance law, make the job of subduing the Republican Party’s right wing insurgents even more difficult because it reduces the establishment party’s ability to starve out their tormentors.
John Boehner’s Speakership is emblematic of the party’s dilemma. his ability to keep his troops in line and to govern effectively is considerably more complicated and difficult than any other Speaker, or institutional party leader, in modern history. He has very few of the tools traditionally used to incentivize good behavior among his party’s more extreme elements. Establishment Republicans cannot rely on their institutional power in subduing their insurgents because they don’t have such power, the insurgents do. They cannot cut the Tea Party’s political supply lines because they no longer control the suppliers.
Unlike the establishment Democratic leaders of a previous era, today’s national Republican partisans are facing a revolt by rank-in-file members who are very well armed. Not only do Tea Partiers effectively hold most of the institutional leverage in their fight for the party’s soul, they also seem to have their share of human and financial capital with which to hold off “the Federals” and to keep pressing the fight in the policy making and public opinion trenches. By obstructing in government and preaching in the conservative mass media universe, Tea Party Republicans have been able to maintain their seat at the grown up table in the Republican Party without having had to agree to behave like adults.
What Gerson and Wehner do not seem willing to clearly acknowledge is that as long as the Tea Party is able to maintain its alliance with corporate special interests intent on dismantling the government’s capacity to regulate their industries, they will be immune to the kind of political/institutional accommodations that have been used to “save political parties” in the past. The legal, institutional, and cultural environment is so different today than it was when the Democrats tamed their left wing, that the play book may be of very little use to those who hope to save the present day Republican Party from being reduced to a regional party.
Though the present legal and institutional environment favors it, The Tea Party is at a huge and growing disadvantage culturally and demographically at the national level, where their values and assumptions are presently on the endangered species list. Because demographics and cultural commitments are the most significant factors that bind rank-in-file Tea Partiers to the movement, it seems very unlikely that conventional compromises are plausible remedies for the Republican Party, which means that saving the party’s national political credibility will have to involve separating the Tea Party faithful from their wealthy patrons.