In the course of writing a column for TPMCafe arguing that GOP “Establishment” wins in this year’s Republican Senate primaries disguised the broader Tea Party influence over the party, I decided it was time to step back and sort out what we all mean when we talk about “battles” and “wars” on the Right these days. Here’s how I sought to do that at the Washington Monthly today:
I’ve been pretty outspoken for years now in arguing that aside from foreign policy, the main “battles” within the Republican Party have been over strategy and tactics, not policy or ideology. Now strategy and tactics do matter, as last year’s government shutdown and the incessant obstructionism that is the congressional GOP’s default position demonstrate. But the main function of the Tea Party Movement has been to intensify and defend a rightward movement in the Republican Party that’s been underway for decades but has gained hellish momentum since the 2008 elections, regularly overwhelming the efforts of GOP elites to instill some “pragmatic” caution. In that sense, the Tea Folk are winning “the war” even if they lose a number of primary “battles.”
If you look at the rhetoric and positioning of many of the “Establishment” winners in this year’s Senate primaries, it’s like the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest all over again. There’s remarkable near-unanimity in favor of hard-core positions on fiscal matters, the economy, cultural issues, and immigration–and above all a violent resistance to the idea that government can play a positive role in national life other than at the Pentagon. “Pragmatic outsider” David Perdue of GA won his runoff in no small part by going Medieval on “amnesty,” just like Mitt Romney did during the 2012 primaries. “Establishment” icon Thom Tillis of North Carolina won his primary by branding himself as leader of a “conservative revolution” in his state (much as Romney called himself “severely conservative”), and identifying with “base activist” hostility to the poor and minorities (much as Romney went over the brink with his “47%” comments). Joni Ernst of Iowa, initially vulnerable in her primary for having supported a gas tax increase in the legislature, cozied up to every conservative activist in sight, indulged in harsh Obama-bashing, and endorsed a “personhood” amendment.
This rightward movement of the GOP remains the most important political phenomenon of our time, and despite all the “rebranding” talk after the 2012 presidential defeat, it’s still happening. So whereas no one should exaggerate the differences of opinion among Republicans at present, the rightward pressure based on real and threatened primary challenges is an important factor.
Perhaps in using military language in talking about intramural conflict on the Right, we should talk about a “Cold War”–one in which it’s reasonably clear who is on the offensive and seems likely to prevail. It’s not any sort of “pragmatists.”