The Republican Civil War Is Getting Bloodier

Even as their political prospects brighten for 2014, Republicans are at odds with each other.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) listen to a question as House Republican leaders address the media after a party conference on March 19, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 11, 2013, 11:12 a.m.

Glen Bol­ger, one of the Re­pub­lic­an party’s lead­ing poll­sters, told the Wash­ing­ton Post today that the Re­pub­lic­an party needs to stop be­ing the “dys­func­tion­al equi­val­ent of the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins.”

If any­thing, Bol­ger was be­ing too gen­er­ous. The on­go­ing Re­pub­lic­an soap op­era between the so-called es­tab­lish­ment and the em­boldened con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots is even more chaot­ic than the latest drama between Mike Sha­na­han, Dan Snyder and RG3.

Con­sider: Paul Ry­an, the lead­ing voice of fisc­al con­ser­vat­ism in Con­gress, is get­ting pil­lor­ied by his own col­leagues for ac­qui­es­cing to a budget com­prom­ise that avoids the pro­spect of a polit­ic­ally-sui­cid­al gov­ern­ment shut­down next year. House Speak­er John Boehner soun­ded down­right ex­as­per­ated today in re­act­ing to con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion to the deal, call­ing it “ri­dicu­lous.” But Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, already un­der fire from con­ser­vat­ive groups for his propensity for deal-mak­ing, is re­portedly against the budget com­prom­ise. Mc­Con­nell’s been joined in op­pos­i­tion by Flor­ida Sen. Marco Ru­bio and Ken­tucky Sen. Rand Paul, two of the up­per cham­ber’s most high-pro­file Re­pub­lic­ans.

The Re­pub­lic­an party rarely misses an op­por­tun­ity to miss an op­por­tun­ity.

Even con­ser­vat­ive groups are fight­ing with each oth­er. The Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee Chair­man fired its long­time ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, out of con­cern he was leak­ing con­fid­en­tial con­ver­sa­tions to con­ser­vat­ive groups hos­tile to Re­pub­lic­an in­terests. They’re at odds with each oth­er over polit­ic­al strategy, with the Club for Growth keep­ing its powder dry, while the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund is eagerly look­ing for op­por­tun­it­ies to chal­lenge sit­ting Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors who are ideo­lo­gic­ally un­kosh­er.

And that’s not in­clud­ing today’s dis­turb­ing al­leg­a­tion that Ry­an Los­karn, the chief of staff to Ten­ness­ee Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der was placed on leave amid al­leg­a­tions in­volving child por­no­graphy.

The Re­pub­lic­an party rarely misses an op­por­tun­ity to miss an op­por­tun­ity. With sev­er­al new na­tion­al polls show­ing the GOP ahead on the gen­er­ic bal­lot for the first time in years and Demo­crats self-im­mol­at­ing over their troubled health care law, Re­pub­lic­ans are in ter­rif­ic po­s­i­tion to cap­it­al­ize. That was the polit­ic­al lo­gic be­hind the Ry­an budget com­prom­ise — delay a messy fisc­al fight un­til after the 2014 midterms, which are shap­ing up to be fa­vor­able for Re­pub­lic­ans. Re­take the Sen­ate, and sud­denly the party holds a lot more lever­age over fu­ture fisc­al fights.

But for those who have fol­lowed the on­go­ing battles between Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship and the con­ser­vat­ive back-bench­ers, it’s nev­er easy. Ry­an ar­gued, at his press brief­ing with Patty Mur­ray Wed­nes­day, that Re­pub­lic­ans can’t let the per­fect be the en­emy of the good. To con­ser­vat­ives, the com­prom­ise that was struck isn’t even close to be­ing good.

The dys­func­tion is here to stay, wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans like it or not.

“[The Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment] is not fol­low­ing through what they prom­ised, and they don’t real­ize how hos­tile they are to the grass­roots,” said Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ive Fund ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or Matt Hoskins. “This is the type of stuff that sends a mes­sage to voters that their lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton don’t like them, and they don’t rep­res­ent them.”

Un­til now, Re­pub­lic­ans have usu­ally ac­qui­esced to its con­front­a­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive wing on some of the big fights — shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment over Obama­care fund­ing, re­ject­ing tac­tic­al man­euvers to gain lever­age on fisc­al cliff ne­go­ti­ations. But there are signs that the es­tab­lish­ment is now eager to fight back. Mc­Con­nell has de­clared war against his chief con­ser­vat­ive nemes­is, the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, black­list­ing con­sult­ants and can­did­ates do­ing busi­ness with the group. The Cham­ber of Com­merce is now will­ing to in­volve it­self in primar­ies, already spend­ing six-fig­ures in an Alabama Con­gres­sion­al run­off between an es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­an and a grass­roots con­ser­vat­ive. Even Boehner, who has been cri­ti­cized for bow­ing to his right flank, hit back at them today, say­ing op­pon­ents of the budget deal were “us­ing our mem­bers and”¦ us­ing the Amer­ic­an people for their own goals.”

Many Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve counter-at­tacks by the es­tab­lish­ment is ex­actly the for­mula for uni­fy­ing the party. It’s time for more sticks than car­rots, the think­ing goes. But that ig­nores the fact that con­ser­vat­ive voters are driv­ing the rise of out­side groups, not the oth­er way around. These are the voters who hated the bank bail­outs, re­sent cam­paign com­mit­tee in­volve­ment in Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies, and think politi­cians are too quick to “go Wash­ing­ton” when elec­ted, en­joy­ing the perks of power over the prin­ciples of polit­ics.

These tea party voters aren’t go­ing away, and are the driv­ing force be­hind the con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion. That’s why sev­en of the 12 Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors on a bal­lot next year face primary chal­lenges, even if most aren’t all-that-cred­ible.

That means the dys­func­tion is here to stay, wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans like it or not. It means the party will con­tin­ue to look like an un­ruly mess for the fore­see­able fu­ture, mostly be­ing held to­geth­er by their shared op­pos­i­tion to Pres­id­ent Obama.

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