GOP must fight harder, but not with itself

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Fiscal Crisis Sounds the Charge in GOP’s ‘Civil War,’” was the headline of a story in the New York Times Monday on the bitter aftermath of the budget shutdown showdown.

Irony abounds. Their most bitter factional dispute ever comes when Republicans are more nearly united on policy than at any time before in the 159 year history of the GOP.

When the Republican Party was formed in 1854, Republicans were united only by opposition to slavery.

There were liberal Republicans not so long ago. Sen. Jacob Javits, R-N.Y., voted the “right” way just 11 percent of the time in 1973; Sen. Clifford Case, R-N.J., just 8 percent, according to the American Conservative Union. The average ACU rating for all Republican senators then was 58 percent.

Republicans today are more conservative, and more uniformly conservative, than ever before. Last year Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe (48.1) and Susan Collins (48.85) were the only Republicans who had lifetime ACU ratings below 50 percent. The average for all GOP senators was 86 percent.

The rift in the GOP today isn’t about policy or principle. Superficially, it’s about tactics. Mostly it’s about culture.

Tea Party insurgents in Flyover Country regard more “moderate” Republicans — the GOP leadership in Congress especially —- as Establishment “squishes” too comfortable with the status quo, too timid to take on the powers that be.

To Establishment “squishes,” Tea Party insurgents are chest-thumping Yahoos who haven’t a clue.

Both are mostly right.

Losing — which, with the partial exception of the 2010 midterms, Republicans have been doing since 2006—- intensifies factional disputes.

Since Ronald Reagan, every GOP nominee for president has come from (what these days passes for) the party’s moderate wing. They’ve done poorly.

Exhibit A is George H.W. Bush. Running in 1988 as Reagan’s vice president, he won comfortably. Running as himself four years later, he got just 37.5 percent of the vote. More forthrightly conservative candidates would have fared better, Tea Partiers think.

Disappointment with George W. Bush fuels ire and angst in the base. Spending and debt exploded on his watch. He wouldn’t curb illegal immigration. He paid lip service to global warming and other liberal nostrums, but didn’t articulate conservative principles.

Conservatives in Flyover Country feel abandoned, betrayed. No one in Washington speaks for them, it seems.

This I think is why Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex, architect of the spectacularly failed shutdown strategy, received a hero’s welcome in San Antonio Saturday, which was a bit like hailing Gen. Custer after the Little Big Horn, or Adm. Kimmel after Pearl Harbor. But many feel about Mr. Cruz the way Abraham Lincoln felt about U.S. Grant. He told those who complained about Grant’s drinking that: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

Republicans can’t win if they don’t fight, Mr. Cruz says. He’s right.

But Republicans also can’t win if they fight stupidly. The ugly end to the shutdown “not only was predictable, it was predicted,” said Charles Krauthammer, who is no less conservative than Mr. Cruz.

And if they fight each other rather than Democrats, Republicans surely can’t win.

“Establishment” Republicans have been too slow to do battle with Democrats, too quick to throw in the towel. But many in the Tea Party have unrealistic expectations for what Republicans can accomplish with control of just one half of one third of the government, and a hostile press.

It isn’t Speaker John Boehner’s fault that what House Republicans say and do isn’t being reported fairly.

It’s hypocritical to be indignant of any criticism other Republicans make of Mr. Cruz, but to take no note of the nasty things Mr. Cruz has said about other Republicans.

It’s preposterous to treat as enemies Republicans who disagree on tactics — especially after they’ve been proved right.

It’s reasonable to argue the damage Republicans have suffered from the shutdown won’t be lasting; that in the long run the GOP will gain from having fought hard against Obamacare. But it’s delusional to pretend significant harm has not been done.

Obamacare is falling apart. The news media have no choice but to take notice. A glorious victory can be won — if “Establishment” Republicans fight a little harder, and Tea Partiers shift their fire from their allies to their enemy.

Jack Kelley writes for The Pittsburgh Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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