Throughout the last year and half, as the Tea Party movement has risen and sustained a consistent presence and voice, an ever-present tension has been acknowledged by Republican leaders, Tea-Party faithful and political pundits. The key question is whether the Tea Party movement will splinter the Republican Party.
There are three potential causes of a split within the party: differences in strategy, ideology, and/or egos.
Turning first to the strategic divide, there has been some evidence of a split. In the recent primary elections for United States Senate in Delaware and Alaska, the Republican Party’s “establishment” choice for candidate was challenged by an insurgent Tea Party-backed candidate, with the insurgent winning.
There are indeed legitimate short-term and long-term strategic differences and risks involved when party leaders and members recruit and vote on candidates. For instance, does a moderate-to-liberal Republican Mike Castle have a better chance of winning the Delaware Senate seat over Christine O’Donnell? The recruiting of Castle by SRCC Chair Senator John Cornyn shows a pragmatic approach that favors majority over conservative consistency. Conversely, the Tea Party and conservative grassroots seem to have concluded that Senator Mike Castle, who voted for the Cap and Trade and Financial Regulations bills while serving in the House, and who has refused to support repeal of “Obamacare” is not a good choice, favoring instead a strident conservative candidate like O’Donnell. While O’Donnell’s electability is indeed an issue when compared to that of Castle, the grassroots are willing to take this risk, even if it means remaining in minority status in the Senate. The calculus is that a weak moderate majority, forced to accede to Senator Castle’s demands (see Arlen Specter in his final years as a member of the Republican Party for how well that worked) is a less attractive option to losing the seat and staying in the minority (albeit a stronger conservative minority).
While these are legitimate and sincere strategic differences, they need not be sufficient to splinter the party. Most importantly, when the primary is over, the time for the fight has ended. Delaware Republican voters have made their choice. Their strategy has conservative purity trumping electability. Strategic differences no longer matter, as the decision has been made. There will certainly be a fair amount of “I told you so” going on November 3rd. For now, if they seek to increase their numbers, the party should unite behind the nominees.
Next we can consider ideology. While there are fringe members of the Tea Party movement, a basic search of Tea Party groups and their platforms will reveal a few basic tenets that tie these groups together:
1) Adherence to the Constitutions of both Federal and State Governments.2) Reduction in wasteful spending and movement towards balanced budgets.3) Protection of free markets and capitalism.4) Government gets its power not because it wants it, but from the consent of the governed.5) Excessive tax burdens kill prosperity.6) Excessive national debt is crippling to future generations.7) Both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for spending beyond the means of the government.8) In recent years, the government has shown considerable arrogance in enacting policies which are strongly against public opinion.
When one reads through this list, a mainstream Republican would be hard-pressed to quibble with any of these ideas. In fact any Republican, from moderate to conservative, should be able to agree with each of these points.
We can conclude that ideology need not be a major source of fissure.
Now we turn to egos. In recent months, we’ve seen a disturbing pattern develop. Mike Castle’s refusal to endorse O’Donnell; Murkowski’s consideration of a Libertarian Party or write-in bid; Charlie Crist’s abandonment of the Republican Party to run as an Independent; and Dan Maes’ refusal to withdraw from his gubernatorial race in Colorado in spite of the fact that his personal liabilities ensure his defeat (It may ultimately become clear that Christine O’Donnell is as guilty of this as Dan Maes). This pattern illustrates that some Republicans are pretty bad losers whose personal ambition is much greater than party loyalty or pursuit of a conservative agenda.
The problem is more than just candidates. There have been tensions between Senator Jim DeMint whose Senate Conservatives PAC has been pushing several candidates who are considerably more conservative than those of his colleague Senator Cornyn, chair of the SRCC. Additionally, debates on several prominent conservative blogs including Powerline, Redstate, the Weekly Standard and National Review Online as well as recent comments by Karl Rove about Christine O’Donnell appear not to be driven by ideology or strategic differences and more of a statement of whose “horse” was in the race.
The greatest threat of “civil war” is self-interest: I want to win or I want my favored candidate to win, and if I/they lose, I don’t want the opponent to win. If Republicans can’t get past this, it won’t be the Tea Party movement’s ideology or strategic differences that cause the collapse. It will be egos that refuse to lose, egos that refuse to put party above self, and egos that trump all else.