GOP Experts Speculate On the Future of the Party
Policy + Politics

GOP Experts Speculate On the Future of the Party

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

It may not be quite the “civil war in the GOP” that veteran conservative strategist Richard Viguerie recently described, but the fallout from the Republicans’ crushing defeat over the government shutdown has exacerbated tensions between Tea Party activists and more conventional Republican conservatives. 

A new Washington Post-ABC News survey this week highlighted how badly the GOP hardliners misjudged the public’s reaction to the 16-day partial government shutdown and near-default on U.S. debt. In the aftermath, eight in ten Americans said they disapproved of the government closure. And more than half of them blamed the Republicans for the crisis, which temporarily tossed hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work and cost the economy an estimated $2.2 billion

President Obama prevailed in thwarting the GOP efforts to defund Obamacare that led to the shutdown, setting off a fresh round of recriminations inside the Republican Party ahead of the 2014 congressional campaign. It all raises questions as to whether the base of power in the GOP will continue to swing toward right-wingers who drive voters to the poll, or move back toward establishment lawmakers with a demonstrated ability to govern and work with Democrats.

The public reactions leave the outcome up in the air.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – the highest-profile ringleader of the ill-fated government shutdown strategy – received a hero’s welcome from conservatives back home. But his chief ally, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, has run into a buzz saw of resentment and opposition from more pragmatic Republicans and businessmen who are considering mounting a primary challenge against him.

If the battle did anything, it confirmed the assumptions on each side of the Republican schism. Political strategists who call for a more inclusive GOP see the shutdown as evidence of the Tea Party’s self-destructive nature, while those sympathetic to the movement claim that their momentum is accelerating with voters. Pollster John Zogby considers the situation to be the consequence of a political echo chamber made possible by heavily gerrymandered congressional districts.

“To call this merely a disaster for the GOP is an understatement,” said Zogby. “The party is being driven by an angry mob that hates government and actually feels came out a victor in all of this. This is the breakdown of our national community because members of Congress are only listening to the loudest voices in their districts, are rejecting the legitimacy of a twice-elected majority president, and are losing the public.”

By contrast, Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party advocacy group, hailed the showdown for showing voters that the Washington establishment could be challenged. 

The GOP leadership had a chance to fight for something that mattered,” Kibbe said. “Those who sided with their constituents over the interests of the Beltway will come out of this fight empowered, not weakened, in 2014. Those who didn’t will have a lot of explaining to do when they go home.” 

Party elders including Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Orrin Hatch of Utah criticized Cruz, Lee, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and others of stubbornly pursuing a flawed strategy of trying to use the government shutdown as leverage to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, which went into effect despite the shutdown. 

Karl Rove, formerly the chief political strategist during George W. Bush’s presidency and the organizer of the political action committee American Crossroads, wrote in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the shutdown ended last week that Obama guaranteed that the shutdown strategy would backfire for the GOP by refusing to negotiate. 

“Barack Obama set the trap,” Rove wrote. “Some congressional Republicans walked into it. As a result, the president is stronger, the GOP is weaker, and Obamacare is marginally more popular." 

"Republicans have damaged their brand, especially among independents,” said Ron Bonjean, a former congressional Republican communications adviser. “ We cannot afford another government shutdown that will continue the bleeding.   A few Senators are benefitting from a failed strategy of connecting a government shutdown to Obamacare.   Beyond that, every faction of the Republican party is losing because our entire brand is taking a hit.”

“Republicans must unite and push a positive agenda that can solve the internal divisions,” he added. “If the shutdown strategy continues, it may hurt us in 2014, but it will definitely damage Republicans in 2016.”

But Craig Shirley, the Ronald Reagan biographer and political analyst, argues that the long-term fallout will probably be minimal. 

“The attention span of the average Washington journalist is about that of a three-year-old,” Shirley said. “The Tea Party will come out more empowered because they are seen as having courage and principles and the Establishment Republicans are seen as not having either. Just as the liberals took over the Democratic Party years ago and kicked out the Reagan Democrats, the GOP has become a more conservative party over the same span of time.” 

Zogby is far less sanguine, noting the public backlash against the Republicans is much greater than many anticipated—and will likely influence the outcome of next year’s House and Senate races. The GOP’s once promising prospects for retaking control of the Senate next year have greatly diminished, according to some political analysts. 

“What was supposed to be a cakewalk for the GOP in 2014 is no longer a given,” Zogby said. “People who vote do not vote to shut down the government, and this strategy has failed three times,” including GOP-provoked shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996. 

But where all sides on this debate agree is that any change will occur at the local level, rather than from within Washington. The battle will be fought during the primary races next year, as conservatives try to unseat the incumbents who pushed for a compromise. It will, then, be waged again as the congressional nominee faces a Democrat who can tack to the middle of the political spectrum. 

“In addition to a barely double digit approval rating for the GOP in Congress, 75 percent of all voters believe that GOP Congressional incumbents do not deserve re-election,” Zogby said. “The only possible winners in the GOP will be governors – Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, possibly John Kasich – who have experience building governing majorities and have alternative governing models that seem to be working.” 

This from Kibbe: “There is a profound shift happening in the way politics are being done in Washington, D.C., and it’s making the leadership used to ‘cutting deals behind closed doors’ very uncomfortable right now. Outside pressure and a growing community of engaged and tech-savvy activists on the right are changing the center of gravity in D.C., and you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. Republicans who recognize and embrace this new era of transparency and accountability in real-time will thrive in 2014 and 2016, and the rest will watch their power dissipate.” 

And finally Shirley:A charismatic leader from the grassroots, such as Scott Walker or Rand Paul, could bridge the divide. The Establishment GOP will make accommodations because that is what the Establishment does. The Tea Party Reaganites will not – preferring to walk out rather than surrender their philosophy. Chris Christie has a lot of work to do with the conservatives even though he has a good record as governor of New Jersey." 

 The Fiscal Times’ Josh Boak and Maureen Mackey contributed to this report.

This piece was updated at 11:06 A.M.