If the Republican Party takes full control of Congress in November, it may have a harder time than a lot of people expect in figuring out what it’s actually for.
The USA Today-Pew poll showing “the strongest tilt to Republican candidates at this point in a midterm year in at least two decades, including before partisan 'waves' in 1994 and 2010 that swept the GOP into power” is raising hopes in some quarters that the Republicans will add a Senate majority to the House of Representatives that they already control. That would put the party in a position to pass some laws, or at least to deliver some legislation to President Obama to veto.
Big tents are good for winning elections. But they can translate into trouble when it comes to governing, which requires making choices. A president can help sort these things out, but for Republicans, at least until after 2016, the White House is likely to function mainly as a guide to what to oppose than as the answer to the question of what to be for.
Back in the mid-1990s congressional Republicans led by Newt Gingrich tried a “Contract With America” that set some pre-election priorities. But with no such contract on the table, at least at the moment, a new Republican majority will run the risk of exposing all the intraparty differences that have been quietly festering.
So it’s not too soon to start thinking about some of the tensions within the Republican coalition that will pose some practical problems. Some of these are factional rifts — tea party versus establishment, or libertarians versus Christian conservatives, or big business versus small business. But they play out in battles over specific issues, some of which Congress will have to tackle.
Among the issues where Republicans are split:
Immigration: Free-market, business-oriented types want to open up the gates to increase the labor supply and cut red tape. Law-and-order conservatives want to get tough on illegals and oppose “amnesty.”
NSA surveillance: Tough-on-terrorism Republicans remember that many of these programs were begun under George W. Bush. Libertarian types think that this is Orwellian big government run amok.
Defense spending: Republicans remember the Reagan military buildup, and there are plenty of military installations and defense contractors in GOP districts. But getting to a balanced budget is harder without curbing growth in military spending.
Common Core: Republicans talk about local control of education. They bristle at national standards, but they are also tempted to impose them, as in George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education law. Plenty of Republican governors have adopted the Common Core in their states, and Jeb Bush supports it. There’s no consensus.
Infrastructure spending: The Chamber of Commerce supported the Obama stimulus bill in part because it included spending on things like highways, bridges, and railroads, which certain big businesses love. Governors often like this kind of spending, too. But, like defense spending, it makes it harder to balance the budget, which is something Republicans also claim to be in favor of.
Tax reform: There’s wide agreement that the current tax system is too complex, but there’s disagreement over what should replace it. A flat tax? A consumption tax or “fair tax”? Some version of the current system but with lower rates and fewer deductions?
Means testing: Some Republicans favor reducing government benefits, like Social Security or unemployment, for well-off recipients, as a way of getting the federal budget under control. Others see it as joining Democrats in a misguided effort to soak the rich or punish hard work, savings, or success.
That’s not even getting into the question of constitutional amendments, where many Republicans claim to favor some version of a balanced budget amendment but wordings vary. Or the social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Sometimes these sorts of disagreements can be healthy and creative, translating into “team of rivals” style Cabinet-level debates. At other times, the rifts can degenerate into counterproductive backstabbing. Without a president, the Republicans will lack a clear decider on these issues. Who will call the shots? Paul Ryan? Rand Paul? Jeb Bush? John Boehner? John McCain? Mitch McConnell? Eric Cantor? Rush Limbaugh?
The “Republicans in disarray” story is one that the liberal press loves to write the morning after elections that Democrats win. The strange thing about 2014 is that the headline applies on the eve of a midterm election that is being touted as a historic Republican victory.
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