Republican Divisions Dissipate Now That They’re In Charge

Meanwhile, out of power, Democrats seem as divided as they’ve been in over a decade.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas gestures while speaking at the Federalist Society's National Lawyers Convention, in Washington, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 4, 2016, 6 a.m.

It’s a time­less max­im of polit­ics: Hold­ing power masks a party’s in­tern­al di­vi­sions and con­flicts. It’s a les­son that Re­pub­lic­ans learned all too well dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, with rest­less tea-party act­iv­ists chal­len­ging the scler­ot­ic party es­tab­lish­ment—capped by sev­er­al high-pro­file mem­bers fall­ing in primar­ies to un­likely in­sur­gents. And it’s a les­son that Demo­crats are learn­ing all too pain­fully now, as the party is splin­ter­ing, with pro­gress­ive of­fi­cials (such as Bernie Sanders, Eliza­beth War­ren, and Keith El­lis­on) ur­ging the party to move even fur­ther left, while more-prag­mat­ic voices (such as Tim Ry­an) beg the party to re­tool its mes­sage so it can bet­ter ap­peal to work­ing-class whites.

What’s re­mark­able is that the es­tab­lish­ment-vs.-tea-party fights that di­vided the GOP for the past sev­en years have dis­sip­ated since the po­lar­iz­ing Don­ald Trump was elec­ted pres­id­ent. Even in­transigent con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers are in­clined to fall in line be­hind the pres­id­ent-elect. The Free­dom Caucus, which routinely held es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans to task for com­prom­ising con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples, now sounds will­ing to em­brace Trump’s big-spend­ing pro­pos­als for in­fra­struc­ture. After threat­en­ing Paul Ry­an with a lead­er­ship chal­lenge be­fore the elec­tion, Free­dom Caucus mem­bers quickly ral­lied be­hind the House speak­er after Trump’s vic­tory. The pop­u­list en­ergy they channeled when out of power is now in Trump’s hands, and if they chal­lenged the pres­id­ent-elect, it would turn against them.

Con­sider Sen. Or­rin Hatch’s re­newed in­terest in seek­ing reelec­tion. Con­ser­vat­ive groups tried to chal­lenge Hatch in the 2012 primary, and to pla­cate the op­pos­i­tion, he sug­ges­ted that he would re­tire at the end of his term. Now, Hatch is spe­cific­ally cit­ing Trump’s vic­tory as reas­on why he should seek an eighth term in of­fice.

And it’s not just Hatch. Ted Cruz can breathe easi­er. Rep. Mike Mc­Caul, who con­sidered chal­len­ging him in a primary, is now fo­cused on the pos­sib­il­ity of join­ing the Trump cab­in­et. Sen. Bob Cork­er, as es­tab­lish­ment as Re­pub­lic­ans come, has got­ten a polit­ic­al boost back home in Ten­ness­ee after be­ing men­tioned as a pos­sible sec­ret­ary of State.

Demo­crats will now be ex­per­i­en­cing the in­tra­party hos­til­ity that dogged Re­pub­lic­ans. House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi re­ceived an early warn­ing sign when 63 of her col­leagues voted against her in a sur­pris­ingly com­pet­it­ive lead­er­ship fight against Tim Ry­an. The battle for the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man­ship is already di­vis­ive, with the early front-run­ner (El­lis­on) turn­ing off Jew­ish groups and some labor uni­ons with his far-left re­cord.

There’s one big dif­fer­ence between the two parties’ pre­dic­a­ments, however. Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers have al­ways been more prag­mat­ic and less con­ser­vat­ive than their voters, a dy­nam­ic that made it dif­fi­cult to re­solve their in­tern­al dif­fer­ences. As the post-2012 Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee autopsy re­port showed, party of­fi­cials truly wanted to move to the middle on is­sues such as im­mig­ra­tion, but their core voters held them to a hard line. By con­trast, most Demo­crat­ic lead­ers —from the White House on down—bought in­to the be­lief that lib­er­als were as­cend­ant thanks to the grow­ing in­flu­ence of the Obama co­ali­tion. Now Demo­crats are in deni­al, hav­ing trouble even re­cog­niz­ing how far out­side the main­stream they’ve moved in the first place.


1. Two red-state Sen­ate Demo­crats have been rumored as pos­sible Trump Cab­in­et se­lec­tions: North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Vir­gin­ia’s Joe Manchin. Heitkamp is the more ser­i­ous pos­sib­il­ity, giv­en that she vis­ited Trump Tower on Fri­day and was con­spicu­ously low-key dur­ing the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Manchin holds the most con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cord among Sen­ate Demo­crats, and has been rumored as a party-switch­ing pos­sib­il­ity in the past.

From a strictly polit­ic­al per­spect­ive, Heitkamp makes more sense. If she is chosen, GOP gov­ernor Jack Dalrymple would pick a tem­por­ary Re­pub­lic­an re­place­ment. That would give the GOP an ad­di­tion­al Sen­ate seat, for a total of 53 (as­sum­ing they win a Louisi­ana run­off this month). In ad­di­tion, Heitkamp would add di­versity, both gender and ideo­lo­gic­al.

If Manchin were chosen, newly-elec­ted Demo­crat­ic Gov. Jim Justice would pick his re­place­ment—who would likely be an­oth­er con­ser­vat­ive-minded Demo­crat. That would not only al­low Demo­crats to hang onto the red-state Sen­ate seat, but also give them a fight­ing chance to win in an up­com­ing 2018 spe­cial elec­tion.

2. There’s been a lot of Monday-morn­ing quar­ter­back­ing lately, dis­sect­ing the reas­ons why Clin­ton lost the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. The im­pact of Green Party nom­in­ee Jill Stein can’t be over­looked. Clin­ton’s mar­gin of de­feat in all three “blue wall” states—Michigan, Wis­con­sin, and Pennsylvania—was smal­ler than the num­ber of votes Stein re­ceived.

To be sure, that’s a con­sequence of Trump’s very nar­row statewide vic­tor­ies more than Stein’s polit­ic­al stand­ing. Stein only won 1 per­cent of the vote in Wis­con­sin and Michigan, and less than that in Pennsylvania. But you can bet that as Clin­ton op­er­at­ives play the blame game as the nar­row­ness of their de­feat sets in, Stein will be on the re­ceiv­ing end of some Demo­crat­ic blow­back.

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