It’s a familiar ritual in Washington every time a party loses a battle or a candidate loses an election. Only this time, it could lead to something more serious: A split in the Republican Party.
The most severe recriminations are aimed at the Tea Party. Why did they take on a fight they were certain to lose? And without any endgame or exit strategy? Don’t they understand how politics works?
Here’s the answer: No.
Or rather, they do understand how politics works — and they reject it. The United States has a Constitution that divides power. The only way anything gets done is through deal-making and compromise. It’s been that way for 225 years. (See the movie Lincoln for a good example).
The Tea Party doesn’t play by those rules. To them, compromise means selling out. They won’t make deals. It’s got to be either victory or defeat. In this case, it was defeat.
But it was a glorious defeat, and they are proud of it. It was their Alamo. “We’re going to start this all over again,” Representative John Fleming (R-La.) told the New York Times. Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said to the Washington Post, “We are waiting around for another battle over Obamacare.” After all, six weeks after the Alamo disaster, the Texas army routed the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto. Their battle cry: “Remember the Alamo.”
Soon we will start hearing “Remember the Shutdown!”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who commanded the disaster, remains defiant. He offers his own recriminations. “Once again, the Washington establishment is refusing to listen to the American people,” Cruz said as the fight was being lost. He claimed, “the American people rose up and spoke with an overwhelming voice.”
But the one who wasn’t listening was Cruz. He thought the people were saying, “Kill Obamacare.” What they were saying was, “Stop holding the country hostage!”
The Republican establishment is thoroughly exasperated with the Tea Party. Republican leaders in Congress and party supporters in the business community are outraged over the fact that their party is being taken over by the Taliban. “There’s got to be some pushback on those guys who think they came here with all the solutions,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told the Washington Post.
But is the establishment ready to fight?
Maybe. Both sides are girding for battle.
The Tea Party is fed up with the Republican congressional leaders who brokered the surrender. It is encouraging primary challengers to run against Republican incumbents next year. “Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races,” Sarah Palin advised her Facebook followers. “Let’s start with Kentucky.”
Kentucky happens to be the state where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is running for re-election next year. McConnell played a key role in negotiating the deal to end the shutdown. And he has said there is not going to be another.
Will the Republican establishment stand up and fight? It’s kind of hard to think of the country club wing of the party getting down and dirty. But business leaders were horrified over the fact that Tea Party insurgents were perfectly willing to allow a debt default in order to get their way. And they are troubled by conservatives’ resistance to immigration reform.
“The problem is, these guys want someone else to do it,” former Representative Vin Weber told the Washington Post. “They don’t want to get involved in primaries.”
But they’re doing it. Or at least, giving money to mainstream contenders who are ready to take on the Tea Party in House races in Alabama, Michigan and Idaho. They are also funding opposition research to discredit Republican candidates whose views are too far outside the mainstream.
Establishment Republicans want their party back. A bipartisan group of 14 centrist senators is trying to work out a compromise budget deal. Are there any centrist Republicans left in the Senate? Yes, a few - Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine). Maybe Republicans will listen to them now that they have seen the havoc the far right has wrought.
The showdown will likely come in 2016 — when the party has to nominate a presidential candidate. If it looks like Republicans are going to nominate Cruz or Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) or another Tea Party type, mainstream Republicans are likely to bolt. It is hard to imagine a warrior like McCain supporting an isolationist like Paul for president.
That’s exactly why the Wall Street-wing of the GOP is pressuring the party to curb the influence of Iowa in the nominating process. Iowa is a caucus state, easily dominated by the religious right and the Tea Party. Case in point: Rick Santorum won the 2012 Iowa caucuses.
We will get an important clue from the New Jersey and Virginia elections for governor next month. It looks like Republican Governor Chris Christie will easily get re-elected in New Jersey, while Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will lose in Virginia. That result would send a message: a mainstream Republican like Christie can get elected in a blue state, but a Tea Party favorite like Cuccinelli can’t win a moderate Southern state.
Case closed? Not quite. Because the Tea Party can make a counterargument. In 2008 and 2012, they went along with the establishment and supported McCain and Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for president. Neither man was ever seen as a real conservative by the Tea Party. But conservatives went along with their nominations because the establishment said they were the only Republicans who could win.
But they didn‘t.
Bill Schneider is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.