I wrote a few days ago about the current division in the Republican Party, which is as profound as I can remember seeing it in my lifetime. The dialogue on this isn’t going to end any time soon. There’s a sense in which we would be shortsighted to want it to. Some observations.
1. Rush Limbaugh is right about the Tea Party and other limited-government conservatives. They have been galvanized by the recent fight, not abashed. The sense about Ted Cruz among limited-government conservatives may be best expressed by Lincoln’s famous exclamation in the face of criticism about Ulysses S. Grant: “I can’t spare this man – he fights!”
2. The main argument of the “establishment” conservatives and Republicans rings hollow with the limited-government wing. David French expresses it here:
One of the more irritating aspects of the recent government-shutdown unpleasantness has been the “I told you so” lamentations of the defund/delay plan’s critics — as if they had anything approaching a workable alternative.
That’s the problem: the establishment GOP had no alternative plan. In fact, a number of commentators – including Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove – made that point in the days just prior to the 1 October deadline. They criticized the GOP leadership for not seeming to have a plan – a plan to at least use the leverage of the continuing-resolution deadline, or the debt ceiling deadline of 17 October, to get some concessions from Democrats on spending and the roll-out of Obamacare. It was 27 September, then the 28th, then the 29th, then the 30th, and still the GOP leadership on the Hill did nothing.
Blaming Ted Cruz and the Tea Party for that looks like a dodge from out here, not a principled criticism.
3. The end result of whatever the GOP did was going to be a cave-in. The core problem is that everyone could see from the outset which party to the negotiations was most likely to cave: not Obama, not the congressional Democrats, not the congressional limited-government conservatives, but the GOP leadership.
It appears that the GOP leadership’s plan all along was to cave with a lower profile – get less negative press for caving – on the assumption that nothing else was possible. Their complaint seems to be that Cruz and the Tea Party fouled that up for them. If Beltway outsiders can see that, congressional Democrats and limited-government conservatives could see it too.
4. There is a limit to what the voters are going to accept in that regard. We are well beyond the inflection point in kicking the can down the road, whether in terms of the regulatory burden on the people, or the public impact of government’s fiscal operations. For the middle-class householder across the fruited plain, there is no kicking the can: the consequences are here. Jobs disappearing, insurance disappearing, goods disappearing from the supermarket shelves, prices going up for everything the people need, no one able to plan until he knows what the Fed, the EPA, or the Department of Health and Human Services will do tomorrow.
The consequences are here. I don’t know how to put it more clearly. Reality has already changed for the electorate. It’s not 2008 anymore. And the GOP isn’t addressing the voters where they are today. It’s addressing them where it thought they were in 2008, when it lost the Oval Office and saw both houses of Congress remain in Democratic hands.
5. Republicans have been doing the same thing over and over again since the 1930s – eventually reverting in each instance from our brief bursts of deregulation and fiscal soundness – and in that time, everything about the size and scope of government has gotten progressively worse. It is vain in 2013 to argue that we haven’t given incrementalism and compromise a chance. For 80 years, that’s all we have done, on balance. We are where we are today because of it, not in spite of it.
6. The reason the GOP is a house divided is precisely that reality has finally changed enough to wake the people up. A very significant segment of the GOP “base” is certain that we cannot continue down the path we are on. This segment of the base cannot agree to elect candidates who insist on hewing to our current path. It cannot elect candidates who despise and excoriate those (like Ted Cruz) who recognize the peril our rights and our way of life are now in, because of how the U.S. federal government is being run.
7. In short: our party differences are between one wing that says there is no crisis, and the other wing that says there is.
To test the proposition that there’s a crisis, I suggest considering what Republicans from the year 1950 would have thought if confronted with the choices we had in October 2013. Would they have seen it as a crisis, that we had to make choices between a government shutdown that would affect so much of the economy – and so many individuals; a decision to raise a debt ceiling that was set in the multiple trillions of dollars, and in fact exceeded our annual GDP; and the implementation of a punishment for an unprecedented purchase mandate, imposed unequally on citizens by the federal government?
I submit that we could ask Democrats from 1950, and get the same answer we would get from Republicans. The whole scenario would look to them like a nightmare crisis from, what? Weimar Germany? Late-imperial Rome? Science fiction? How, they would wonder, did we ever get to such a point of out-of-control absurdity?
8. No part of this “October 2013 crisis” equation is either sustainable or desirable. The good news is that every part of it is artificial. Not a single element of it has arisen naturally from the voluntary, ordinary activities of the people. It’s all created by government policy. Government policy is what dictates government’s size, and its impact on the economy. Government policy is what has generated the colossal federal debt. Government policy is what has created the new insurance-purchase mandate, and the punishment promised to the people if they don’t comply.
9. Republicans disagree profoundly on how long we have to change government policy – how long before things are beyond repair – as well as on how that change should be approached. In matters of state policy, I’m an incrementalist by temperament. But I have reached the point where I am in sympathy with those who see a need for a more abrupt turn.
This doesn’t mean acting outside the constraints of the Constitution. It is a form of libel to accuse the Tea Party/limited-government wing of trying to do so. More than that, it’s a form of hysteria. Such accusations need to stop. America’s limited-government conservatives are the world’s most law-abiding “radicals”: being asked to absorb all the pain of increasingly burdensome government policies, and yet doing little more than staging uniquely well-behaved public demonstrations, and showing support for politicians like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin.
Far from acting outside the Constitution or America’s traditions of government, what the Tea Party and other limited-government conservatives are asking is that their elected representatives represent their wishes – first and foremost by acting within constitutional limits.
10. The viability of the GOP hinges on its ability to address this division and the concerns of the GOP base. There is much talk of a third party these days; apparently, Glenn Beck is doing a lot with the history of the Whigs in 19th-century American politics, and the birth of the Republican Party as an alternative third party in the 1850s. (Someone who follows Beck’s programming can probably tell us more about that.)
Another model is the recent one, in which the more conservative, more libertarian Goldwater-Reagan wing assumed dominance in the GOP in the late 1970s. That process took about 15 years (or about 25, if we date the process to the inception of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s landmark periodical National Review).
Both movements were followed by periods of electoral success. By contrast, “establishment” Republicanism can point to no periods of dominance in the last 100 years in which it produced lasting or coat-tail success for GOP fortunes at the polls.
Can the “establishment” plan gain such electoral support in 2014? I doubt it. Waiting for a complex of vicissitudes to drive the voters your way makes you awfully dependent on how those vicissitudes go. The “left wing” in politics does its main business through shaping vicissitudes, but that has never been the forte of the right wing, and it certainly isn’t something the establishment GOP knows how to do.
What I see is the necessity for a viable “GOP” to have a vision, a plan, and a way ahead. It needs initiative, momentum, lift and thrust against the weight and drag of our past and our problems. It won’t be “more of the same.” It will come under relentless fire from both the left and the establishment right. It will have to be prepared to keep fighting even if it loses battles. It will have to count success in getting its message out and changing minds, before it can change the direction of government.
We are in uncharted territory today. The answers for the GOP going forward may not be found in the events of the past. That’s because the same is true for the nation. If we look to the past – anyone’s past – all we see is a prospect of ruination and despair, from the starting point we occupy in October 2013. And that is unacceptable. So this dialogue in a house divided will continue. The one thing that will guarantee destruction is not fighting it – which is why I admire and support Ted Cruz, even though his stand in the Senate at the end of September was a losing proposition. He fights.J. E. Dyer
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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