Bound for the Centre Ground

Has the Republican Party finally started to turn against its Tea Party faction?
by Benjamin Neikrie

February 11 saw another one of the United State’s famed debt ceiling battles. Leading Senate Republicans Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, taking lessons from last October’s government shutdown, hoped to escape this battle unscathed.

With the deficit and national debt so important to their base, McConnell and Cornyn hoped that all 45 Republican Senators could vote against raising the debt ceiling. Such a breakdown would still allow the U.S to raise the debt ceiling and avoid financial disaster (something for which the GOP would certainly take the blame), while sending a message that Republicans oppose the Democrats’ alleged out of control spending.

But Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favourite, had other plans. The Texas senator announced he would filibuster the bill, meaning the Senate would now need 60 votes to raise the debt ceiling. Cruz pushed his fellow Republicans between a rock and a hard place, forcing them to vote with the Democrats to raise the debt ceiling.

Unable to garner enough support from other Republicans in Senate, McConnell and Cornyn took the fall themselves, voting to raise the debt ceiling. Now, the two leading Republicans, who are facing tough primary elections from candidates painting them as weak on Republican issues, just became weaker.

This has been a common trend for the Republican Party. Traditional conservatives, a coalition that focuses on the economy and defense more than social issues, have faced an increasing number of attacks from Cruz, the Tea Party, and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.

Ted Cruz [pictured below] thinks he is standing up for what he believes in and championing sound economic policy. In reality he is pushing the Republican Party further to the right, and making them increasingly irrelevant in national politics. In hijacking the Republican party, he and his allies have been the best thing that ever happened to the Democrats.

But slowly, it appears he may be helping (moderate) Republicans as well.

Cruz’s engineered government shutdown last October was the nadir of the modern Republican Party. Americans suddenly saw the conservative branch as divisive and petty, willing to sacrifice thousands of jobs and economic security to challenge Obamacare, a policy that had already been confirmed by both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people in the 2012 election. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, appeared incapable of leading an increasingly divided party, one that no longer knew what it stood for. Boehner later admitted that the shutdown was “a very predictable disaster, and the sooner we got it over with, the better.”

Cruz, for his part, remains devoted to the approach, but has faced vitriol and harsh rhetoric from some of his party members. In the aftermath of such a boneheaded political strategy, Boehner’s apology and the Republican Party’s anger with Cruz appeared at best too-little-too-late, at worst two-faced.

What is clear from these comments, however, is that the Republican Party is at a crossroads, poised to tilt either further toward the Tea Party’s extremist neo-conservatism, or back towards a more balanced, economic-based approach to conservatism. So far the result has to be promising – if you’re a conservative in any classic sense of the term.

In December, Boehner urged party members to support the bipartisan Murray-Ryan budget plan, which had faced staunch opposition from conservative groups who saw the bill as an out of control spending boost, and a victory for the Democrats. When asked about groups like Heritage, the Club for Growth, and others that opposed the budget, Boehner lashed out, “You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?” Boehner asked. “They are using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.”

It took long enough, but Boehner finally seems to have grown a backbone. At the very least, he now understands the damage that such extreme politics will have on the GOP. Boehner, as well as much of Republican Party, is stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. The primary system in the U.S forces candidates to pander to their base, which, in the case of the Republicans, has moved further to the right. When Boehner, or McConnell, or Cornyn defy the Heritage Foundation or right-wing funders like the Koch Brothers, they risk adding fuel to the fire they will face in the primaries.

Even if they emerge as the victor in the primaries, they are burnt in the general election. The “independent” may be a dying breed in the U.S, but even to a moderate Republican, Cruz and his allies are extreme. The Republican leadership has played along with this strategy for too long. They’ve tried to toe the line between appealing to the extreme right and appealing to the American people.

But by legitimizing severely right-wing tactics, the GOP created a monster, one that will come back to haunt them in the 2014 and 2016 elections. To swing groups like the growing Hispanic population or Independents, the recent conservative party has been unrecognizable.

In that sense, the government shutdown may be the best thing to happen to the Republican Party in years. It has forced moderate conservatives to finally look in the mirror. And they didn’t like what they saw.