The Myth of the Republican Civil War

Part of the fallout of the events in Washington last week is the discussion of tension within the Republican Party. This is often referred to, somewhat melodramatically, as a civil war within that party. While there is some tension within the Republican Party, particularly after the politically disastrous decision to shutdown the government for two weeks, this tension is not comparable to previous ideological battles within both major parties.

The primary reason for this is that there already has been a civil war in the Republican Party; and the far right won. The situation in the Republican Party today is very different than at various points in the 20th century when liberal or moderate Republicans fought with right wing for control of the party. Today, there is no battle between the moderate and far right wing of the Republican Party. That fight ended years ago with the moderates losing. Although there may be a small handful of centrist Republicans remaining in the party, they do not have a lot of power and move quickly to the right as they become national figures. The most recent obvious example of that was Mitt Romney who had governed Massachusetts as a moderate, but ran for president as a unapologetic conservative. Even people like Chris Christie who are said to represent the moderate wing of the party are, in many respects, conservatives who either have had to govern or who come from the northeast.

The major fight within the Republican Party is one of strategy. This is is significant and may have an effect on national politics, but it should not be mischaracterized as a fight over substance or as an effort by some to move the Party back to the center. Ted Cruz and the other advocates of the shutdown do not disagree with John Boehner or John McCain on the substance of the issues. All of them want to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and share the same views about the role of government. There is little evidence from the last few years to suggest that McCain, Boehner or even other Republican senators like Susan Collins have strong policy differences with Ted Cruz and his Tea Party associates. If these differences do exist, the silence from those who now find themselves disagreeing with Cruz has been striking.

Boehner and particularly McCain were right in their political analysis of how damaging the shutdown would be for their party and were wise to counsel others in their party not to pursue that path. These more experienced legislators were not able to persuade others in their party and are now angry about the shutdown. This is not, however, a civil war. It is a disagreement about how best to pursue common goals.

The difference is important. To call the fallout from the shutdown a civil war is to suggest that there are moderates in the Republican Party and that the party has not been completely taken over by the far right. This is something the Republican leadership would like the American people to believe, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In recent years there have been no Republican voices calling for a vision that is substantively different than that of the Tea Party. The Tea Party has both set the legislative and political agenda and, for the most part, been the public face of the Republican Party. The relative absence of criticism within the Republican Party for the rhetorical excesses or radical policy proposals from the Tea Party is clear evidence of this.

For the Republican leadership in Congress the lesson from their recent and resounding defeat is not that they should recognize that the ACA is the law that has been affirmed by Congress, the Supreme Court and the voters, that shutting down the government damages the U.S. economy and global standing, or even that their positions are out of sync with most Americans. Instead, the lesson they learned is that next time they need to have thought out their strategy more.

To a large extent, the Republican Party's congressional leadership sees their problem as one of branding. They understand that being seen as the party of older white men damages them, so they seek to find faces of the party who are younger, female and non-white. Similarly, they fear that their recent behavior has caused many Americans to view them as destructive and out of touch, so they want to behave differently next time. This is not the stuff of deep internal divides within a party. Ultimately, however, the problem is not one of branding. A few new faces and more appealing buzzwords will not solve the Republican Party's problem. On the contrary, the Party is viewed as destructive to the economy, dominated by ideological extremists and unconcerned with real problems facing Americans outside of their declining demographic base, largely because they are.