IDENTITY CRISIS IN THE GOP

David Shribman

Let's start with two unavoidable truths: The country's fiscal crisis has not been addressed, and 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 the fact that I have to tell you 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 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.

But there is more. The division between the Republicans' isolationists and neoconservatives has never been addressed, let alone healed, and the nomination of former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary will likely 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 in the past week, with the swearing-in of new lawmakers who received big contributions in their teacups for the fall election. These legislators would have voted against the fiscal cliff legislation -- and would have added to the chorus of those criticizing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, increasingly the symbol of fecklessness and compromise, two words melded in meaning in the capital in recent years.

These lawmakers will oppose any compromises with the president and will do so with political impunity. Some of them won Republican primaries against establishment figures who might have been lured into a grand bargain, or even an itty-bitty bargain. Their financial supporters and their districts will back them -- will cheer them on -- if they foment rebellion.

Capitol Hill hasn't see a generation of newcomers like the ones from the last two elections since the Watergate class of 1974, and those Democrats changed Congress indelibly. If you doubt it, consider whether the phrase "campaign finance reform" would have any meaning whatsoever if those Watergate babies hadn't been elected. Five of these political mastodons remain in Washington 38 years later. Their average American Conservative Union rating for 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, was under 6 on a scale of 100. (Two of the three members of the Utah House delegation won ratings over 95.)

All of 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 being dependable -- in fact, indispensable -- advocates for measures to extend rights to Americans left out or falling behind).

And yet the beginning of all wisdom in today's Republican Party is that the party's record against President Barack 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. 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 has also struck out the speaker repeatedly. It is 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.

The rebellion he faces has few precedents, the most recent being the emergence in the 1980s of the Boll Weavil Democrats, who favored tax and spending cuts during the speakership of Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts. Democrats then could defect to the other party -- Phil Gramm of Texas was the most prominent -- but that option is not available to today's rebels. They're stuck in the GOP, and the GOP is stuck with them.

The Republicans -- all of them, not just the rebels -- now are saying that the passage of the New Year's Day 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. (By the way, wasn't the quiet elevation of that ceiling by $3,600 at the start of the year a tax increase?) And that's only one example.

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

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

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.

COPYRIGHT 2013 THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

View Comments (117)