Breaking up may be hard to do, but it's the GOP's best chance for survival.
The United States no longer has a two-party political system. As the events of the past few weeks have shown, the Republican Party has split into at least two groups that are no longer just factions. Though it may be hard to believe, this division has created an enormous opportunity for the GOP's leadership. But don't worry -- they'll probably blow it.
A common narrative holds that the rift in the GOP had its roots in the vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin and the subsequent blossoming of the Tea Party. The archconservative, ideological wing of the party finally coalesced, posing a threat to the more pragmatic and centrist elements. The first big symptom of this change was a bulge in primary challenges against apparently safe Republican incumbents by far-right members of their own party.
In the midst of this infighting, the Republican establishment was slowly losing control of its congressional caucus. In the fight against fiscal stimulus after the 2010 election, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and their cohorts were happy to exploit the energy of the Tea Party, since they shared its goals. Now, however, the two factions have come into open conflict over legislative issues, namely funding the government and the debt ceiling. Boehner's colleagues say he may even abandon the Hastert Rule by putting a bill to a vote in the House without the support of a Republican majority.
Unofficially, the GOP today is a coalition of two parties. One party constitutes a majority of Republicans in the House and Senate, but not a majority of votes in either chamber. The other party includes perhaps 50 or more members of the House and a handful of senators. Despite its much smaller size, this second party appears to wield just as much power as the first.
Why is that? As anyone who follows politics in Israel, Italy, or more recently the United Kingdom can tell you, the votes at the margin make all the difference to a coalition; they can tip the balance when bigger parties lack majorities but still vote uniformly. When a fringe party does decide to join a coalition, it's usually for reasons of power: positions on committees and in the ruling cabinet. This is particularly prevalent in parliamentary systems, where a legislative majority comes with executive powers as well.
Yet this is not the case in the United States. On the contrary, far-right Republicans have little to gain by kowtowing to the party's official leadership. Seats on committees might allow the far-right members to bring more pork to their states and districts, but open opposition to the Republican establishment grants them the spotlight of the national media and a chance at even higher office. Ted Cruz may not have won over his colleagues with his recent grandstanding in the Senate, but his name recognition across the country has certainly grown.
In fact, Boehner and other Republican leaders in the House now have to worry about their own posts, thanks to the rising threat of a revolt by Cruz's allies. If the far-right group had their own official party, they would have little hope of forcing Boehner to resign before the next Congress begins in January 2015. But because they are still nominally Republicans, the far-right group still has a say over who holds the gavel.
Herein lies the first hint of a counterintuitive conclusion: In the long term, establishment Republicans in Congress might wield more power if they expelled the far-right group from the party. This would be especially true if, after doing so, they seized the opportunity to move their party closer to the center.
Democrats have long dreamed of just such a schism in the GOP, on the assumption that it would cement their own party's domination of the national electorate. But they could easily be wrong. The expulsions would be a political earthquake, a dramatic move whose repercussions would capture the attention of Americans for weeks on end. A reinvigorated Republican Party, under the banner of centrists like Chris Christie and Rob Portman, would no longer have its low-tax and small-government messages polluted by anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-poor rhetoric. Such a party might even gain enough seats in swing and Democrat-held districts to replace the far-right votes it had lost.
Yet none of this is likely to happen, because Boehner, McConnell, and the rest of the formal Republican leadership are far too concerned about their own power. Their narrow focus on maintaining their posts in the current Congress has made them incapable of taking a long-term view of the strategies that might benefit their party. And an official split would almost certainly put them in a weaker position for the remainder of the Obama presidency.
That's too bad, because the moment is now. The distorting and extorting tactics of the far right are on display for all Americans to see. Approval ratings for Congress and the Tea Party are at all-time lows, and the public is desperate for an end to the logjam in Washington. There's still a year before the next midterm election, and there are three years to plan for the presidency. For all of these reasons, the showdown that should be happening today is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between Republicans and Republicans.
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