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More on GOP Divisions: Ideology or Strategy & Tactics?

The debate over the nature of intra-GOP differences before, during and after the shutdown/default crisis continues in various quarters. At Washington Monthly today, I noted that two movement-conservative luminaries strongly weighed in for the idea that it’s strategy and tactics, not goals and philosophy, that separated the “Defund Obamacare” zealots from more cautious Republicans:

First, here’s National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg, who wants to convince Tea Folk there are no ideological heretics left to purge:

“Pick any three defining issues of conservatism — say, smaller government, low taxes, and opposition to abortion, or a strong national defense, entitlement reform, and gun rights — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find the supposedly liberal Republican “establishment” on one side and the tea-party faithful on the other.
“Even on the policies that are splitting Republicans these days — say, foreign policy or immigration — the rift does not neatly divide the establishment and the “real conservatives.”
“Such a statement will no doubt infuriate many conservatives who believe that the establishment is insufficiently committed to conservative principles. And that is an entirely fair complaint. But that criticism is about efficacy and passion, not policy or philosophy. And this is a hugely important distinction that has been deliberately airbrushed out of the picture painted by groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks. The inconvenient truth for these groups is that the current GOP establishment is more conservative than it has ever been.
“In the recent internecine conservative donnybrook over the government shutdown, the insurgents insisted they were in an ideological struggle with the establishment. But there was precious little ideology involved. Instead, it was a fight over tactics and power. The Republican party almost unanimously opposed Obamacare, and the Republicans who’ve been in office far longer than Cruz & Co. have voted more than three dozen times to get rid of the disastrous program. And yet, the latecomers to the battle talk as if the veterans in the trenches were collaborators the whole time.
“I have enormous sympathy for their frustration, because I share it.”

More interesting is that the same point of view is shared by Erick Erickson, who is at the beating heart of “defund Obamacare” and “purge the RINOs” rage-a-palooza:

“Long after we are dead, pundits and political reporters will still talk about the Rockefeller Republicans vs. the Conservatives and other such archaic divisions that no longer exist except in the rhetorical habits of pretentious political reporters. The real division within the Republican Party now isn’t even between those who call themselves tea partiers fighting the establishment. “Tea party”, like “conservative” and “Republican”, has less meaning these days and I increasingly dislike using the word. Admittedly though, everyone would consider me one based on the general parameters of what the tea party is.
“In any event, the real fight within the Republican Party now is between those who believe we actually are at the moment of crisis — existential or otherwise — and thereby must fight as we’ve never fought before and those who think the GOP can bide its time and make things right.”

In other words, the rift is about “strategy and tactics,” not ideology, philosophy, goals or even long-term agenda.

This debate is happening outside the Republican ranks as well. Today Jonathan Chait argued that the “Defund Obamacare” movement was not based on a deliberate strategy–because it didn’t make sense strategically–but on a cry of protest aimed at overturning a majority conservatives might have lost for good in the electoral arena. I commented at some length at WaMo:

I absolutely share Jon’s belief that cultural panic is a big part of contemporary conservatism, and would add that the Tea Folk perceive Obamacare as a particular “tipping point” crucial to the larger tipping point from freedom to socialism. But does that mean the “Defund Obamacare” campaign was a cry of despair rather than an actual strategy?

Like Chait, I don’t think there was ever any chance that Obama and congressional Democrats would agree to a significant disabling of the Affordable Care Act had push truly come to shove. But this was not the perception of the “Defund Obamacare” folk, or even of some more mainstream commentators, which is precisely why I kept saying the president needed to look Republicans in the eyes and convince them he’d let Republicans drag the economy to hell before conceding that point.

To put it another way, was the effort to screw up Obamacare really “insane” when it produced a loud wail from a significant number of MSM commentators begging the president to cave–most commonly via a year’s delay in the law’s effective dates? A year’s delay, of course, would have put the Obamacare effective date beyond the 2014 midterm elections, when conservatives figured (a) the bribery effect of Obamacare’s benefits would not have its “tipping point” impact and (b) the righteous remnant, in a better turnout environment, would reverse 2012 as any sort of national referendum.

That’s all a long stretch, of course, but it’s not “insane.” And the other thing we should keep in mind, even if we accept Chait’s characterization of the “Defund Obamacare” drive as more protest than strategy, is that Tea Folk tend to share a far-from-unique belief that noise and “enthusiasm” are a tangible political asset, and that conventional strategic considerations should on occasion give way to a sort of will to power. That, too, is not “insane,” at least to the extent that an awful lot of people in politics, and not just on the Right, share a magical faith in the efficacy of “enthusiasm” to one degree or another.

This debate matters because when the GOP’s strategic issues are resolved, the ideology will remain, along with the long-term agenda to implement it.

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