Identity crisis in a divided GOP


Let's start with two unavoidable truths: The country’s fiscal crisis has not been addressed. The battle to redefine the Republican Party will occur long before any presidential candidates land in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Congress addressed barely a fraction of the economic conditions it was hired to fix. The battle over spending has yet to begin — and the one about entitlements hasn’t even been engaged.

The struggle over the future of the Republican Party? It won’t wait until campaigning for the caucuses on the prairies and the primary in the mountains three years from now.

Republicans may be talking wistfully about Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal, but that I have to tell you that Mr. Jindal is the governor of Louisiana tells you how premature — how beside the point — the presidential speculation is.

The GOP problem has many dimensions. One is that a dozen Republicans voted against the re-election of their own speaker. One is that that speaker, John Boehner of Ohio, was rendered irrelevant by his own caucus during the December drama over the fiscal cliff. Another is that the Republican caucus in the 113th Congress may be even more militant than the one in the last Congress.

There is more. The division between the Republicans’ isolationists and neoconservatives never has been addressed, let alone healed. The nomination of former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary likely will exacerbate those tensions.

The other division in the party — the one between regulars and Tea Partiers — is far deeper and far more significant than the GOP split of the last generation, between religious conservatives and economic conservatives.

That division may have grown this month, with the swearing-in of new lawmakers who received big contributions in their tea cups for the fall election. These legislators would have voted against the fiscal cliff legislation and would have added to the chorus of those criticizing Mr. Boehner. The speaker increasingly is the symbol of fecklessness and compromise, two words melded in meaning in the capital in recent years.

This ferment on the right would be startling to a visitor from another age, accustomed to viewing Republicans as bland oatmeal, preoccupied by debts and deficits — but in many cases dependable advocates for measures to extend rights to Americans left out or falling behind.

Yet the beginning of all wisdom in today’s GOP is that the party’s record against Mr. Obama is 1-4.

The GOP’s lone victory came in the 2010 midterm congressional elections, which is not insignificant; it changed the chemistry of Congress. But its defeats are perhaps more important: the President’s two election triumphs, the passage of Obamacare, and last month’s fiscal cliff.

Mr. Obama, the only Democratic president in three-quarters of a century to win a majority victory twice in a row, may not have a ferocious fastball, but he has mastered the slider and the curve.

He also has struck out the speaker repeatedly. It is Mr. Boehner’s sad lot to fight a two-front war, one with the President, the other with the firebrands in his caucus. He says he won’t negotiate with the President anymore. He can’t avoid negotiating with his own members.

Republicans — all of them, not just the rebels — are saying that the passage of the fiscal-cliff legislation marks the end of the tax debate and the beginning of the spending debate. They may be right. But not necessarily.

If they define tax increases as any increase in revenues through direct assessments on taxpayers — and many do — they may be wrong. Some proposals to shore up Social Security involve increased revenues, perhaps by lifting or eliminating the income ceiling on individual contributions, now set at $113,700.

Republicans have put away the tax tool. Mr. Obama may not have.

An equally vital question is the face Republicans present to a public that is undergoing dramatic demographic changes and that signalled only two months ago that it is moving away from the GOP. Stated simply: The Republic is growing less white while Republicans are growing more so.

The two unavoidables are haunting the GOP: death (of the old political demographics) and taxes (of any sort).

The other day BuzzFeed, a source not ordinarily cited on op-ed pages, declared the presidential election in the Czech Republic “the most interesting election in the world.” They might be right. Don’t miss the candidate with the facial tatoos.

But there is almost no contest for the crown for the most interesting political party in the world. It’s the party that for decades was the dullest party in the world. Praise the Lord and pass the teacup.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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