Obama's divide-and-conquer strategy: Is it really about destroying GOP?

The day after Obama's inauguration, Boehner accused him of trying to 'annihilate' the Republicans. Indeed, the party's struggles since have only grown. But weakening the GOP may not be all Obama wants.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Feb. 26 photo, President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks about automatic defense budget cuts during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News, Va.
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There’s no doubt about it, things aren’t going well for the Republicans.

The latest polls show President Obama and the Democrats beating Republicans on just about every issue, from the economy and health care to immigration, Medicare, and gun violence. Overall, 45 percent of Americans agree with most of what the president is doing, 40 percent agree with the congressional Democrats, and only 29 percent agree with the congressional Republicans, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Wednesday.

Ouch.

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So here’s a question: What role (if any) has Mr. Obama played in the Republicans’ travails? Some Republicans – hello, Eric Cantor – say there’s nothing wrong with the party’s positions, and their problem is marketing. Others, in a hint to hard-line tea partyers, say the party has to become more pragmatic and open to compromise even while still hewing to its core principles.

But there’s a case to be made that Obama has helped exacerbate the GOP’s internal divisions by highlighting wedge issues. Gay marriage, the expansion of Medicaid, immigration reform, even the “sequester” – all have splintered the Republicans and at times forced them into debate among themselves as much as with Democrats.

“Obama’s doing a good job of exploiting internal discord,” says Ford O’Connell, president of the conservative Civic Forum PAC.

The Republicans, of course, damaged themselves in the last election. The party is still digging out from Mitt Romney’s rich-guy gaffes, starting with his disparaging comments about the “47 percent.” Obama continues to crush the Republicans on the issue of who understands the concerns of the middle class. Then there were the off-key comments on rape that cost the Republicans two Senate seats and untold embarrassment nationally, especially among women voters.

But it was Obama’s unabashedly liberal speech at his second inaugural that fueled the notion that he is actively trying to splinter the opposition. He went after climate-change skeptics when he bashed those who “may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.” He took an indirect slap at the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, when he dismissed the idea that the social safety net – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security – makes us “a nation of takers.”

Obama went in for the kill with this comment: “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

House Speaker John Boehner got the message. The next day, in a speech to the moderate-Republican Ripon Society, he accused Obama of trying to “annihilate the Republican Party.”

The speaker argued that because Obama laid out an agenda that can’t get through the Republican-controlled House, the administration’s real aim must be to destroy the GOP.

“Let me just tell you,” Speaker Boehner said, driving the point home, “I do believe that is their goal – to just shove us into the dustbin of history.”

A month later, the Republicans have grown only more fractious. The American Conservative Union declined to invite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most popular Republican in the country, to their annual confab – the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC – next month.

In the grand scheme of things, the CPAC snub is small potatoes – in fact, it may help Governor Christie’s image as a pragmatist as he runs for reelection and possibly president. But it’s also telling: The biggest annual gathering of conservatives won’t include one of the GOP’s superstars, because he played nice with President Obama after superstorm Sandy, right before Election Day.

On gay marriage, more than 80 Republican leaders broke ranks with party orthodoxy this week by submitting a brief arguing in favor of marriage equality, ahead of next month’s Supreme Court arguments on the issue.

And as the federal government prepares to implement the sequester – deep, across-the-board spending cuts, half out of defense – Republicans are splintering over how to frame it and whether even to fight its implementation. The GOP establishment opposes the cuts as currently configured (entitlements are mostly exempt) and points out the Obama administration came up with the idea. Tea partyers welcome the cuts, calling them a victory for smaller government.

But at least one House Republican is in open revolt. Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia, whose district is home to the largest naval base in the world, says he’s open to closing tax loopholes and thus creating new revenue to avoid the deep cuts. When Obama visited his district Tuesday, he gave Congressman Rigell a shoutout.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, up for reelection in 2014 and concerned about defense cuts, has also tiptoed off the reservation. On Monday he told CNN he was open to $600 billion in new tax revenue if Democrats would go along with major entitlement reforms.

Immigration reform is another issue that deeply divides the GOP. Some Republicans oppose a path to citizenship, or anything that could be called “amnesty.” Others, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, have changed their tune and now support a path to citizenship. Reaching agreement will be tough, but Republicans’ abysmal showing among Latinos last November is a vital area of GOP concern.

In fact, a legalization process could end up eventually creating more Democratic voters. But Republicans like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush say that the party needs to move in this direction regardless, to get the issue behind it. Otherwise, Latinos won’t hear the rest of the GOP message of economic opportunity and family values.  

There’s no doubt the 2012 election opened up divisions in the Republican Party, and it’s natural for the president to try to take advantage of them, says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. But making the Republicans look disjointed isn’t necessarily Obama’s ultimate goal.   

“At best, he wants votes,” Mr. Zelizer says. “At minimum, he wants the divisions more pronounced – it  makes them look weaker.”

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