The Republican Party’s Identity Crisis

Josh Kraushaar

President Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary was designed, in part, with the ambition to divide the Republican Party against itself. If they opposed him, Republican senators like Mitch McConnell  and John McCain  would be facing the prospect of explaining their formerly gushing comments toward their former colleague. It would bring out the handful of Republican foreign-policy realists, whose voices have been growing louder as enthusiasm for American interventionism has waned. And it would add to the growing list of issues where Republicans offer knee-jerk opposition to Obama’s agenda.

The blowback hasn’t yet occurred, with Republicans maintaining at least a united front of skepticism toward Hagel while it’s been a handful of Democrats openly concerned about his support for Israel. But the ambition to split the Republican Party asunder is part and parcel of the White House’s second-term game plan—and it’s exposing an unpleasant truth for Republicans. There’s not much ideological unity within the party, even as the GOP is united against Obama’s agenda.

The fiscal-cliff debacle in the House pitted conservative against conservative, with antitax ideologues dueling against conservative pragmatists playing the long game. Noted tax hawk Grover Norquist supported the Senate compromise, while the Club for Growth and Heritage Foundation’s action committee vigorously opposed it. Nearly every Republican senator voted for it, but House Republican leadership was split. Even Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Marco Rubio of Florida, two leading, like-minded 2016 presidential contenders, were on opposite sides of the vote. Opposition to higher taxes was, since the Reagan era, the ideological glue holding the party’s economic views together. With one late-night deal, that went out the window.

The next major rift, over disaster spending, occurred all too publicly between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and House Speaker John Boehner over a delayed appropriation of Hurricane Sandy relief. Christie, who in his bid for 2013 reelection has become more and more comfortable bashing his own party, lambasted the GOP for the breakdown. Never mind that the $60 billion relief package contained some unrelated pork, the type of spending that Christie used to criticize when he entered office determined to take on wasteful spending. Or the fact that Christie headlined a fundraiser in September for the National Republican Congressional Committee, when the House Republican Conference’s conservative views on spending were well-established. Indeed, Christie appears to be making the calculus that running against his own party—at least its congressional leadership—is a winning political tactic, even if he harbors ambitions to compete for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

The old Jewish saying “Ask two Jews a question, and receive three different answers” could apply in spades to the varied conservative perspectives on how to tackle runaway spending. Some believe the debt can be responsibly cut primarily by tackling waste. Others will point to runaway foreign aid as their favorite pet peeve. And the responsible ones, led by Ryan, correctly identify entitlement spending as the main driver of long-term debt. But that’s also the most politically tricky answer to give. The fact that Ryan himself avoided campaigning on his budget proposal during the presidential campaign demonstrates that risk, even in some of the more Republican parts of the country.

Meanwhile, Obama is preparing to prioritize immigration reform on his second-term agenda, a move that would do as much to divide the GOP as it would to score points among Hispanic voters. It would threaten to engulf the GOP in a heated internal debate that would make the fiscal-cliff arguments seem like child’s play. Immigration sparked the beginning of the Republican rebellion from George W. Bush, well before the tea party emerged as a GOP force. And the wave of tea party-aligned freshmen, most representing homogeneous districts, aren’t at all inclined to embrace positions they once railed against. Most Republican strategists believe that, without a jump in support from the growing Hispanic population, the GOP could become a permanent minority party—and immigration reform is the ticket to win them over. But they would acknowledge that quickly adding more Hispanics to the voter rolls could further damage the Republican party’s long-term standing as well. Conservative talker Sean Hannity, the day after the 2012 election, reversed course and came out for some version of comprehensive immigration reform; the next day on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh doubled down on his opposition.

All these policy divides have already cropped up in the political arena, and could easily intensify. The litany of conservatives taking on establishment Republicans in 2010 and 2012 is well-documented. Already in 2013, Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is threatening to mount an independent candidacy against Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race, a move that would all but doom the GOP’s chances. The Club for Growth wasted no time making noises about a primary challenge after Rep. Shelley Moore Capito entered the West Virginia Senate race, even though the state, long dependent on federal aid, isn’t particularly hospitable to fiscally conservative dogma.

I’ve long been skeptical about the feasibility of a third party, but I’m beginning to entertain the possibility that the GOP could become split apart as these policy debates come to the fore. It was only three years ago that pundits viewed the tea party movement as a legitimate third-party threat in the heat of their activism; instead, activists worked from within to nominate like-minded candidates and press their agenda. 

Is it that much of a stretch to believe that, by 2016, the grassroots base will have taken control of the Republican Party, and the establishment will be looking to bolt?