Will Rogers's famous quip – "I don't belong to any organized party. I'm a Democrat." – might well apply to the GOP today.
Its failure to win anything out of the recent 16-day federal shutdown and threat of government default revealed the sharp and widening split between Republican congressional leadership and the politically potent tea party minority.
This is evident in new polling by the Pew Research Center, which shows how and why that split should be troubling for the party as it looks ahead to future fights with the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Senate, particularly since tea party types in Congress – led by freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas – are seen as prime movers causing the shutdown and threat of default.
“The Tea Party is less popular than ever, with even many Republicans now viewing the movement negatively. Overall, nearly half of the public (49 percent) has an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, while 30 percent have a favorable opinion,” Pew reported this week. “The balance of opinion toward the Tea Party has turned more negative since June, when 37 percent viewed it favorably and 45 percent had an unfavorable opinion. And the Tea Party’s image is much more negative today than it was three years ago, shortly after it emerged as a conservative protest movement against Barack Obama’s policies on health care and the economy.”
Among moderate Republicans, according to this poll, views of the tea party have dropped 19 points just since June – from 46 percent favorable to 27 percent favorable today. An AP-Gfk poll showed that 70 percent of all voters now hold unfavorable views of the tea party.
There is a certain I-told-you-so tone in what senior Republican lawmakers are saying these days.
“One of my favorite old Kentucky sayings is there’s no education in the second kick of a mule,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said to The Hill newspaper this week once the dust had begun to settle and the federal government got back to work.
“The first kick of a mule was when we shut the government down in the mid-1990s [which cost the GOP House seats] and the second kick was over the last 16 days,” he said. “There is no education in the second kick of a mule. There will not be [another] government shutdown.”
“I think we have fully now acquainted our new members with what a losing strategy that is,” McConnell added.
Those “new members,” of course are Senators Cruz and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, as well as some three dozen Republican House members, who barged ahead with efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) when veteran lawmakers like Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona were warning that that was an unwinnable battle. (A reminder of something the late, great California lawmaker Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh once said: “Sometimes you have to rise above principle.”)
Sen. McCain is part of what conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks calls “the Republican reality caucus” – those who understand how Washington politics traditionally works. They may be a majority of GOP lawmakers, but many feel the hot breath of the tea party in the form of threatened (or actual) primary election challengers charging in from the right with no tendency to compromise and a gleeful inclination to bust up the furniture on Capitol Hill.
They’ve seen what happened to such veteran senators as Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett, both bounced from office by challengers claiming to be more conservative. Sen. McConnell faces re-election next year, and he already has a tea party-backed opponent. So does Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi. Sen. Mike Enzi (R) of Wyoming – a conservative by any rational analyst’s definition – is being challenged from the right by Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president.
Bloomberg News reports that at least seven Republican senators face a primary in the 2014 midterms.
"We're going to shake things up in 2014,” Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook the other day. “Let's start with Kentucky – which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi." (Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee also is seeking re-election.)
Perhaps. But it’s also true that polls tracking a generic House race (by party, not specific candidate) do not bring good news for the GOP.
At the end of July, according to the combined surveys of some half dozen organizations put together by the Huffington Post, Republicans and Democrats each won about 39 percent of those polled. As of this week, Democrats had shot ahead six points (45-39 percent).
The headline on a Bloomberg News piece Friday night – “Republican Civil War Erupts: Business Groups v. Tea Party” – points to another important part of the GOP’s fight with itself, which is business groups mobilizing to defeat allies of the small-government movement.
“We are going to get engaged,” Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the US Chamber of Commerce (which spent $35.7 million on federal elections in 2012) told Bloomberg. “The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.”