We read it all the time: The Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war. It’s tea-party conservatives against establishment Republicans. It’s the ideology of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee (libertarian, isolationist, and dogmatic) against the party of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Mitch McConnell (pragmatic, military hawks). The conventional wisdom is that these ideological fissures will keep the party from gaining the momentum it needs for political takeover in the coming elections.
But can this prevailing headline on the GOP be spun into a positive?
At the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan tried a new frame for GOP friction: Diversity of ideas is a good thing.
“The way the Left tells it, the Republican Party is in a civil war,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “It’s tea party versus establishment — libertarians versus social conservatives. There’s infighting, conflict, backbiting, discord. Look, I’m Irish — that’s my idea of a family reunion. I don’t see this great divide in our party. What I see is a vibrant debate.”
The message: Let’s replace “infighting” with the euphemism “creative tension.”
Tell that to Cruz and Lee, who continued their usual jabs at the Republican establishment in their speeches today.
Lee stayed in step with his tea-party response to the State of the Union — with the message that the tea party is a force of positive disruption. “Most of the speakers you’ll hear this week will come to inspire you, or flatter you, or claim solidarity with you,” he said. “I have come to challenge you.”
He continued, “The Washington establishment can join us, follow us, or get out of the way.”
Cruz, likewise, spoke disparagingly of moderate Republicans. Talking about recent Republican presidential candidates, he said, “Those are good men, those are decent men — but when you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate.”
In contrast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (perhaps the highlight of the morning’s lineup) used language of solidarity in his well-received speech. “We have to start talking about what we are for, not what we are against,” he said. “Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that’s what we have to stand up for.” As Pew and other polling outlets have found, however, that Republican idea is in flux. For instance, on the recent budget debates, Pew found that while 64 percent of tea-party Republicans say it’s important to stick to positions, 60 percent of mainstream Republicans say compromise is more important.
Watching CPAC this morning, it’s clear that the unifying theme is a disgust with the current president (Bobby Jindal in no unclear terms called President Obama stupid). But is that enough to write the party’s next presidential platform? For now, the creative tension carries on.