The Last Days of the GOP
We could be witnessing the death throes of the Republican Party
BYI once wrote about lobbying, and this week I called some Republicans I used to talk to (and some that they recommended I talk to) about the effect the shutdown is having on the Republican Party in Washington. The response I got was fear of Republican decline and loathing of the Tea Party: One lobbyist and former Hill staffer lamented the “fall of the national party,” another the rise of “suburban revolutionaries,” and another of “people alienated from business, from everything.” There is a growing fear among Washington Republicans that the party, which has lost two national elections in a row, is headed for history’s dustbin. And I believe that they are right to worry.
The battle over the shutdown has highlighted the cracks and fissures within the party. The party’s leadership has begun to lose control of its members in Congress. The party’s base has become increasingly shrill and is almost as dissatisfied with the Republican leadership in Washington as it is with President Obama. New conservative groups have echoed, and taken advantage of, this sentiment by targeting Republicans identified with the leadership for defeat. And a growing group of Republican politicians, who owe their election to these groups, has carried the battle into the halls of Congress. That is spelling doom for the Republican coalition that has kept the party afloat for the last two decades.
American party coalitions are heterogeneous, but they endure as along as the different groups find more agreement with each other than with the opposition. After Republicans won back the Congress in 1994, they developed a political strategy to hold their coalition together. Many people contributed to the strategy including Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Paul Coverdell, Paul Weyrich, and Ralph Reed, but the chief architect was probably Grover Norquist, a political operative who, along with Rove and Reed, came of age in the early Reagan years. The strategy was based on creating an alliance between business, which had sometimes divided its loyalties between Republicans and Democrats, and the array of social and economic interest groups that had begun backing Republicans.
In weekly meeting held on Wednesdays at the office of his Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist put forth the idea that business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), but also including the specialized trade associations, should back socially conservative Republican candidates, while right-to-life or gun rights organizations should back tax cuts and deregulation. What would bind the different parts together was a common opposition to raising taxes, which Norquist framed in a pledge he demanded that Republican candidates make. Business could provide the money, and the single-issue and evangelical groups the grassroots energy to win elections.
Republican Party. In Congress, a succession of leaders, including Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay, and Roy Blunt, followed the strategy. Gingrich initially overreached, and DeLay took ethical end-runs, but by the time John Boehner became Minority Leader in 2007, it had been refined. Its economic approach consisted of promoting cuts in taxes, spending, and regulation. Boehner, as lobbyists close to him explained to me, wanted to use the battle over continuing resolutions and the debt ceiling to achieve incremental changes on these fronts. He did not contemplate shutting down the government or allowing the government to default on its obligations.
But Boehner was forced to adopt the more extreme strategy. Norquist blames Cruz. “Boehner had a strategy,” Norquist told me, “but Ted Cruz blew it up.” That is, however, giving Cruz too much credit (or blame) for the result. Cruz did help convince House Republicans that if they linked passage of a continuing resolution to repealing Obamacare, he could get the votes in the Senate to follow suit. But Cruz was following a script that had been developed earlier. What has happened over the last two months, leading to the shutdown, and political paralysis in Washington, is the result of deeper factors that have put Norquist’s entire “center-right” strategy in jeopardy.
Since the late 1960s, America has seen the growth of what the late Donald Warren in a 1976 book The Radical Center called “middle American radicalism.” It’s anti-establishment, anti-Washington, anti-big business and anti-labor; it’s pro-free market. It’s also prone to scapegoating immigrants and minorities. It’s a species of right-wing populism. It ebbed during the Reagan years, but began to emerge again under the patrician George H.W. Bush and found expression in support for Ross Perot and for Pat Buchanan with his “peasants with pitchforks.” And it undergirded the Republican takeovers of Congress in 1994. It ebbed during George W. Bush’s war on terror, but has re-emerged with a vengeance in the wake of the Great Recession, Obama’s election and expansion of government, and continuing economic stagnation.
In his current column in The New York Times, Tom Edsall cites the extensive polling evidence for this rising anger. According to a Pew survey in late September, anger against the government “is most palpable among conservative Republicans” and overlaps with Republicans who “support the Tea Party.” But as with the Perot and Buchanan voters, these conservatives direct their anger equally at Republican and Democratic leaders. According to another Pew survey, 65 percent of the Republicans vote in primaries “disapprove of Republican leaders in Congress.” They see Republican leaders as being complicit in whatever they find wrong with Washington.
This anti-Washington sentiment, which is loosely identified with the “Tea Party,” has overshadowed and transformed grassroots Republicanism. Republican leaders like DeLay were able to keep the evangelicals and other social conservatives in line by battling gay marriage or late-term abortions. But as I recounted three years ago, many of these social issue activists have been absorbed into the Tea Party’s anti-government, anti-establishment ethos. In their current report on the GOP, based on focus groups, the Democracy Corps affirms this conclusion. Evangelicals, the report says, “think many Republicans have lost their way” and that the party leadership “has proved too willing to ‘cave’ to the Obama agenda.” They identify with the Tea Party groups (even though they may disagree on social issues) because they see them “standing up and pushing back.”
During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, these kind of sentiments were directed at moderates like House Minority Leader Robert Michel or Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, but they are now aimed at erstwhile conservatives like Mitch McConnell and Boehner. The new grassroots Republicans are Warren’s middle American radicals. They don’t necessarily have clear overall objectives. They do want to blow up government—whether by eliminating the debt or repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. And whatever they want to do, they want done immediately and without compromise. And they regard those like Boehner who compromise and are willing to settle for incremental changes as “RINOs”—Republicans in name only.
As this Republican anti-establishment has surged, new groups have arisen in Washington to respond to it, while older groups have attempted to adapt and keep pace. The Club for Growth, perhaps the best known of these, and the one with which I am the most familiar, actually dates back to the early ‘90s when several Wall Streeters created a club to fund promising candidates. The Club’s initial agenda was to promote Jack Kemp-style growth policies, and their first big success was in getting Christy Whitman (a RINO if there ever was one!) elected governor of New Jersey on an anti-tax platform.
The current Club, under former Congressman Chris Chocola, expends much of its effort on backing conservative Republicans against other conservative Republicans whom it believes are too close to the Republican leadership in Washington. The operative terms in the Club’s jargon are “outsiders” against the “establishment.” In 2012, for instance, the Club poured over $700,000 into backing a little known dentist, Scott Keadle, against Richard Hudson. The two men had very similar positions, but Keadle, Chocola explained to me, was “very much an outsider,” while Hudson had worked for a Republican House member and was backed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s PAC.
Other groups have followed a similar strategy of backing maverick conservatives against establishment conservatives. They include FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity both of which came out of the breakup of Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was founded by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint in 2010 before he resigned to become head of the Heritage Foundation. They are supplemented by blogs and web pages like Erick Erickson’s RedState and by policy groups like the Heritage Foundation’s Heritage Action.
These groups don’t get most of their funding from traditional Republican sources on K Street. Much of their money comes from multi-millionaires and billionaires who are not responsible to stockholders. These include the Koch Brothers, who fund Americans for Prosperity, and investors and hedge fund operators J.W. Childs, James Simons, and Robert Arnott, who are among the chief funders of the Club for Growth. Most of these funders espouse an extreme libertarianism—the Koch brothers were early backers of the Cato Institute—but they also stand to benefit from the kind of drastic reduction in government regulations and taxes that the groups and their candidates advocate.
The groups are sometimes believed to be part of a single giant conspiracy led by the Koch brothers, but that is not the case. The Koch brothers started Americans for Prosperity after they became dissatisfied with Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, and the two groups are now rivals. The Kochs are also not major funders for the Club for Growth. The groups themselves often back the same candidates and causes, but are sometimes at odds. FreedomWorks has taken a harder line on the government shutdown than Americans for Prosperity, and the Senate Conservatives Fund is currently running ads in Arizona denouncing one of the Club for Growth’s favorite senators, Jeff Flake, for opposing the attempt to link the continuing resolution to the repeal of Obamacare.
What the groups share is an attempt to tap into the spirit of middle American radicalism. They espouse a somewhat sanitized (less anti-big business and Wall Street) version of the Tea Party’s economic libertarianism. They want to elect “champions of economic freedom” who are for “limited government.” They scorn compromise and the Republicans who make the compromises. “I think the whole concept of compromise and bipartisanship is silly,” Chocola says. Their ultimate goal, Chocola says, is to elect a “majority of true fiscal conservatives” who will transform the government—or in the meantime, gum up the works by making compromise difficult, if not impossible.
To date, the groups have had a mixed record in elections. They screwed up in Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, and Missouri by backing extreme Republicans in Senate primaries who lost winnable elections to Democrats. But they helped elect Senators Toomey, Cruz, Rubio, Flake, and Paul and about 15 House members, including Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton whom they are now backing in the Arkansas senate race.
These are still relatively small numbers, but in the peculiar American system, a few people can exert an inordinate amount of power. In the Senate, the Tea Party adherents can disrupt any attempts at compromise, as Senator Ted Cruz did recently. In the House, they can threaten John Boehner’s job, because Boehner needs an absolute majority of House members to retain his speakership. And numbers aside, the threat of a primary challenge (now converted into a verb “to primary”) hovers over the all Republican Senate and House members, most notably McConnell, and has forced Boehner and McConnell to follow dutifully the shutdown strategy of Cruz and his House allies.
Under pressure from grassroots radicals and the new outsider groups, the old Republican coalition is beginning to shatter. The single-issue and evangelical groups have been superseded by right-wing populist groups, which are generally identified with the Tea Party, although there is no single Tea Party organization. These groups can’t easily be co-opted by the party’s Washington leadership. And the business groups in Washington, who funded the party over the last two decades, have grown disillusioned with a party that appears to be increasingly held hostage by its radical base and by outsider groups. The newspapers are now filled with stories about business opposition to the shutdown strategy, and there are even hints of business groups backing challenges to Tea Party candidates. “The business community has got to stand up and say we are not going to back the most self-described conservative candidate. We are going to back the candidates that are the most rational,” says John Feehery, a former aide to DeLay and Hastert who is now president of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a Washington lobbying firm.
What Washington business lobbyists say on-the-record about the House Republicans and about Tea Party activists pales before what they are willing to say if their names aren't used. One former Republican staffer says of the anti-establishment groups, “They want to go in and fuck shit up. These non-corporate non-establishmentarian guys—that is exactly what they are doing. And the problem with that is obvious. What next? What happens after you fuck shit up?” Other lobbyists I talked to cited John Calhoun, Dixiecrats and Richard Hofstadter’s essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” to explain the rise of the populist right. It’s the kind of reference you’d expect to read in a New Republic article, but not necessarily in a conversation with a business lobbyist.
One could argue, of course, that the Republican Party will readapt to its rightwing base and eventually create a new majority of “true fiscal conservatives” who will disdain compromise. But there is reason to believe that Chocola and the Club for Growth will never achieve their objective. Rightwing populism, like its predecessor, Christian conservatism, is intense in its commitment, but ultimately limited in its appeal. Tea Party Republicans and the outsider groups probably had their greatest impact when they were still emerging phenomena in the 2010 elections. But when the Republican Party becomes identified with the radical right, it will begin to lose ground even in districts that Republicans and polling experts now regard as safe. That happened earlier with the Christian Coalition, which enjoyed immense influence within the Republican Party until the Republican Party began to be identified with it.
In Washington, today’s business lobbies may come to understand what the lobbies of the ‘50s grasped—that the Democratic Party is a small “c” conservative party that has sought to preserve and protect American capitalism by sanding off its rough edges. Joe Echevarria, the chief executive of Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm, recently told The New York Times, “I’m a Republican by definition and by registration, but the party seems to have split into two factions.” Echevarria added that while the Democrats also had an extreme faction, it had no power in the party, while the Republican’s extreme faction did. “The extreme right has 90 seats in the House,” he said. “Occupy Wall Street has no seats.” That realization could lead business to resume splitting its contributions, which would spell trouble for the Republicans.
Republicans in Washington could repudiate their radical base and shun the groups that appeal to it. That is roughly what people like Feehery are suggesting. But the question, then, is what would be the Republican base? How would Republicans win elections? Are there enough rational Republicans to make up for the loss of the radical ones?
What is happening in the Republican Party today is reminiscent of what happened to the Democrats in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, the Democrats in Washington were faced by a grassroots revolt from the new left over the war in Vietnam and from the white South over the party’s support for civil rights. It took the Democrats over two decades to do undo the damage—to create a party coalition that united the leadership in Washington with the base and that was capable of winning national elections. The Republicans could be facing a similar split between their base and their Washington leadership, and it could cripple them not just in the 2014 and 2016 elections, but for decades to come.