My Big Fat Republican Family

Can the GOP come together on growing apart? At CPAC, Paul Ryan offers a new frame on GOP infighting.

National Journal
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Brian Resnick
March 6, 2014, 9:22 a.m.

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.