Political halftime for the GOP?

  • Article by: LAWRENCE R. JACOBS
  • Updated: December 28, 2013 - 4:08 PM

The Tea Party and ‘Liberty movement’ have upended the Republican Party. Can members of the GOP establishment turn THINGS right side up (as they see it) in 2014?

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‘Knives are drawn.”

This isn’t a line from a police blotter. It’s the way a leader of the Minnesota Republican Party describes the GOP establishment’s intensifying battle with grass-roots insurgents on the right.

Before the 2014 election contests heat up between Democrats and Republicans, the GOP faces a ferocious and momentous internal battle, according to my chats with a number of party insiders.

The stakes are huge. Will the party’s nominees for governor and U.S. Senate in 2014 hold firm to the right’s pure principle of severely limited government? Or will the party, as a national GOP fundraiser put it, “organize beyond the convention process to appeal to a broader scope of people” — voters who want government to shoulder a larger, if still restrained, range of responsibilities? Should the party select candidates who will take office willing to accept compromises that advance conservative policy ideas, or who will stay committed to staunchly defending principle even if it produces government shutdowns?

Today’s Republican civil war arises from longstanding tensions. Barry Goldwater inspired a libertarian backlash against the New Deal on his way to wresting the 1964 Republican presidential nomination away from the party’s moderate wing, led in those days by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater lost the general election in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson but ignited a lasting movement on the right that transformed the GOP and cleared the way for Ronald Reagan’s election nearly two decades later.

Although these strains have remained within the party throughout the past half century, 2014 may witness an eruption fueled by two recently rising forces on the right.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul revitalized libertarians behind a program to pull the United States back from international entanglements and to severely retrench government to restore individual autonomy — from abolishing the Department of Education, to legalizing marijuana and gay marriage, to prohibiting surveillance. Some of this “Liberty Movement” is gravitating in Minnesota toward state Sen. Julianne Ortman’s candidacy to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken next year.

The Tea Party, meanwhile, formed in reaction to what some conservatives saw as President George W. Bush’s moderate Republican brand of “big government” — increased spending, a major new prescription drug benefit in Medicare, and his widening of national authority to conduct surveillance and intercede in education. President Obama’s economic stimulus spending and health care legislation ignited the Tea Party as an electoral force, propelling Republicans to victories in the 2010 elections for state offices and Congress.

In Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann has embodied Tea Party zeal. Its new local “rock star,” according to some activists, is state Sen. David Thompson, who is mounting a 2014 challenge to Gov. Mark Dayton.

These two factions are distinct — the right is not monolithic. The Liberty Movement’s isolationist instincts on foreign affairs and laissez-faire social policies are not embraced by the Tea Party. But one leader of the right’s grass-roots insurgency in Minnesota describes an increasingly “comfortable alliance” between the two.

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Republican strategists initially believed, in 2008 and 2010, that the new right’s energy could be tapped to help defeat Democrats without disrupting the GOP. Wrong. They now bitterly complain about the insurgency’s “takeover” and its tendency to be “conservative first, Republican when it suits their purposes.” The right mocks moderates as RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”), but the establishment retorts that “they are the RINOs” and that “it is time to stand up and welcome the debate with the right.”

Far from shrinking from a fight, the Tea Party and the Liberty Movement, according to one insurgent leader, are “ready to fight for the heart of the party.” Many on the right voice disdain for the mainstream GOP and the thirst of the business community to “buy government and the politicians they can control.”

Budget crises and government shutdowns in Washington and Minnesota in recent years (and near federal defaults in 2011 and again this fall) have brought the simmering tensions to a boil heading into 2014. These confrontations, in the view of the right’s insurgents (as one explained), were necessary to “act on the principle of liberty” and against crony capitalism that is turning Americans into “tax slaves.”

But the GOP establishment was taken aback by the right’s brinkmanship. One well-placed national Republican described it as “bad policy” and “bad for America” because it feeds growing doubts about U.S. leadership and reliability. A leader in the Minnesota business community found it “deeply troubling that some Republican lawmakers treated default as feasible — it would have devastated American businesses and consumers.” Mitt Romney, a former adviser regretted, “made a mistake by not taking on the right” during his battle to win the 2012 presidential nomination.

“What bothers me most about the right,” an influential Republican confided after surveying the right’s record over the past few years, “is its lack of optimism about the future of America and lack of confidence in the power of its ideas to make America more successful, win over the country and build a majority party.”

The welfare status quo was toppled, this observer recalled, because “we won the intellectual debate about reducing dependency and increasing self-reliance by increasing earned income tax credits.” Engaging policy led to good politics — drawing not only Republicans but also some Democrats and even more independents. By contrast, the right’s embrace of default and isolationism, according to this longtime Republican, results from “intellectual laziness” that exalts principle but relies on fear and conspiracy theories about “imagined villains.”

The last straw for the GOP establishment and business is what it sees as the right’s political ineptness. Opposition to reaching a fiscal cliff deal early in 2013 produced more spending and taxes than if House right-wingers had allowed Speaker John Boehner to bargain — instead of leaving the dealmaking to Obama and the Democrat-controlled Senate. Default threats in 2011 led to the sequester process that cut discretionary spending but left untouched long-term commitments to Medicare and Social Security.

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  • State Sen. Julianne Ortman, who plans to challenge U.S. Sen. Al Franken in next year’s election, has gained some attention from the Liberty Movement.

  • State Sen. David Thompson, who plans to run for governor in 2014, is seen by some activists as the new “rock star” of the Tea Party.

  • Former U.S. Rep. and presidential candidate Ron Paul is credited with sparking the “Liberty Movement” in the Republican Party.

  • U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has announced that she will not seek re-election in 2014, has embodied Tea Party zeal.

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