Since losing the White House in November, the Republican Party has been going through a very public period of "soul searching," wrestling with what the party stands for and how to broaden its appeal in future elections. Mostly, that struggle has been cast as a fight between the tea party and what's loosely referred to as "the establishment."
In reality, it's more complicated than that, of course. The GOP, just like its Democratic counterpart, is a messy compilation of a variety of factions – social conservatives, antitax and small-government crusaders, defense hawks, and a hodgepodge of single-issue voters (gun enthusiasts, for example) – all of whom have different, and sometimes conflicting, priorities.
Now, the battle over the “sequester” – the automatic cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending scheduled to hit at the end of next week – is highlighting one of those intraparty fights in a big way, by pitting the GOP's defense hawks directly against its antitax crusaders.
And so far, it's pretty clear who's winning.
As Time's Michael Crowley writes: "With the sequester scheduled to inflict $46 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget, President Obama has offered an alternative that would mitigate the cuts, in part, by raising taxes on the wealthy. But Republican leaders won’t swallow any new taxes or accept smaller cuts to the federal budget. And so, defense will get the budget ax. And national security conservatives, long accustomed to being granted virtually every wish by their party, find themselves appalled."
The GOP's national security conservatives have made it clear they believe the sequester is not just bad policy, but extremely dangerous. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona recently called it "outrageous and shameful," saying it "impairs the ability to defend our nation in these very tense times with great challenges to our national security."
By contrast, the antitax wing of the party has lately been arguing that the sequester will be no big deal – and, in fact, doesn't go nearly far enough. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a tea party conservative who tends to be skeptical when it comes to foreign intervention, told CNN this week that the sequester was a mere "pittance," pointing out that it will only slow the rate of growth of spending, while spending overall will continue to increase. The likely impact of the cuts, according to Senator Paul, "will be in some ways a yawn."
Now, it's true that the antitax wing of the party suffered a defeat of its own a few months back when Republicans agreed to raise taxes as part of a deal to resolve the "fiscal cliff" (putting the sequester off for three more months). But it seems that battle has made them even more determined to win this time around.
At the same time, the relative diminution of the pro-defense wing of the party may have been inevitable – in part, because of the legacy of the Bush years. The GOP's defense hawks are now primarily associated with the unpopular war in Iraq and unpopular public figures like former Vice President Dick Cheney. In fact, frustration with the Bush administration's willingness to spend huge sums of public money on wars and other foreign interventions (as well as on new domestic spending, like the Medicare prescription drug plan) was a primary factor in the creation of the tea party.
The sequester itself may still be resolved at some point – if not before it officially hits next week, then perhaps in subsequent weeks as its effects begin to play out. But the impact of this particular battle on the internal dynamics of the Republican Party – particularly if it establishes the antitax wing as dominant above all others going forward – could be much longer-lasting.