Your Must Read Guide to the GOP Civil War
By John Feehery
Despite being more philosophically in tune than ever before in its history, the Republican Party is theoretically in a civil war. The GOP used to have a prominent pro-choice wing, a prominent environmentalist wing, a prominent civil rights wing, a wing that wanted to raise taxes and wing that wanted to broadly increase spending, but those days are long over.
Since Ronald Reagan gained the White House, the GOP has been built on three sturdy legs of the stool. First, there was a libertarian, pro-growth, pro-low tax cut economic conservative leg. Then, there was a values-based, pro-family, anti-abortion socially conservative leg. Third, there was the military industrial, pro-defense, neo-conservative leg.
There has always been some tension between these legs. The libertarians hate spending money on government, and don’t particularly care about social issues. Social conservatives also tend to be political populists and strongly dislike Wall Street Bankers. Neo-conservatives don’t necessarily share the same world view of the social conservatives and find the isolationism of the libertarians to be frightening.
But in the dying days of the Bush administration, several separated things occurred that frayed the fabric of the Republican coalition to its breaking point.
Factors in the Breaking Point
- First, the Iraq War became increasingly unpopular, driving down the President’s approval ratings.
- Second, the financial crisis hit Wall Street, almost toppling over the American auto industry, destroying 401k’s for millions of Americans, and caused a panic that severely undermined confidence not only in our financial system but also our government. It also plunged America into the Great Recession, exacerbating economic inequality and putting considerable stress on the Middle class.
- Third, a social media explosion hit the American political system, making it easier than ever before for concerned citizens to share their concerns, the latest rumors, or the best jokes that they had heard. That social media explosion helped to connect disparate and previously isolated voices, and made it easier for those with especially strong opinions to share those opinions with all who would listen.
- Fourth, thanks to McCain-Feingold and then Citizens United, political parties lost their ability to control the political dialogues, and soon it became the Wild West of political participation. Just about anybody with access to a computer and a clever marketing talent could become a “conservative interest group.”
- Fifth, largely because of the first two factors, Barack Obama found himself elected as President, fair and square. That radicalized the conservative right perhaps more so than any other event in American history. Obama, a seemingly mysterious Chicago politician of allegedly unknown origins, has driven the right-wing of this country batty. And Obama’s efforts to federalize most health care spending in this country helped to spark the start of the Tea Party, a collection of activist conservative groups that has alternately given needed energy to the Republican Party and been a thorn in the side of the GOP establishment.
And that brings us to the present day state of the Grand Old Party and its frayed coalition. Here is a handy-dandy guide of whom is who and what they actually believe in:
The Republican Congressional Leadership:
It can be lonely being at the top of the heap, and for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, it can be very frustrating herding the cats that make up their respective caucuses. Boehner wants to keep his Congressional majority and McConnell wants to gain a majority for the Senate, which at times puts them at odds tactically. Both the Speaker and Minority Leader are conservative personally, although not movement conservatives, and neither are trusted by the Hard Right.
The Republican Governors are a disparate lot of political leaders who share one basic desire: To get more money out of the Federal Government than they have to donate to it. Because these governors pretty much all have to balance their budgets each year, they don’t have the luxury of being completely fiscally irresponsible. That means none of them are purists when it comes to tax increases, because at the end of the day, if they need more revenue to balance their budget, they will get more revenue.
Republican National Committee:
Reince Prebius is the Chairman of the Republican Party and he has two primary missions: Raise money and set the rules for the next Presidential contest. Money comes in two forms: From grassroots, small dollar donors and big money, corporate titans. Prebius has to construct a big tent message that inspires both the little guy and the big money guy to give and sometimes that requires some delicate dancing. Pre-McCain-Feingold, the RNC had a dominant position in determining the course of the political discussions, because it could attract almost unlimited corporate “soft” money. Those days are over, and now the RNC is at a strategic disadvantage.
Talk Radio Hosts:
The grand-daddy of all talk radio hosts, Limbaugh likes to call himself an entertainer, just as he lectures the Republican establishment on how to legislate. Limbaugh has had an outsized influence on Republican politics for a generation, and with one sound-bite, he can make any member of Congress quiver. Because he is so controversial, very few Fortune 500 corporations advertise on his show. He accepts advertising from the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, and allegedly gets paid handsomely for mentioning these groups on the air.
A former Reagan Administration official, Levin is a dark, malevolent force on the radio. He called the Ryan Budget “Mickey Mouse”, and he has a new book that calls for the Constitution to be just about totally rewritten. There is no question he has a passionate following among the hard, libertarian right, and no legislative deal will ever be good enough for him.
Beck is mostly inspired by W. Cleon Skousen, a Mormon supporter of John Birch, and Robert Welch, the founder of the Birch Society. Beck was instrumental in creating the Tea party movement, and he is a gifted performer who has weaved religious themes with useful tidbits of history and economic theory to make for a program that many find entertaining and informative. Beck was bounced from Fox News because he proved to be too controversial even for Roger Ailes.
The voluble New Yorker has both a radio program and a television show on Fox. Sometimes he can be a friend to Republicans, but lately has become more and more antagonistic towards them, calling them sell-outs and suggesting in October to Sarah Palin that perhaps there should be a conservative third party alternative.
Conservative Activist Groups
Senate Conservatives Fund:
Founded by former Jim DeMint staff member Matt Hoskins, the SCF has a simple business model: Raise money by attacking Republican leaders, focused almost exclusively on Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. Hoskins has spent more than 2 million dollars of his budget on television and radio advertising attacking these leaders for not being conservative enough. He has endorsed Tea Party primary challenger to McConnell and others, but it is unclear how much money he has donated to those challengers because so much of his budget goes to advertising. He raises his money mostly in small batches with small donors, presumably people who listen to Rush Limbaugh and who hate big business and the so-called Republican Establishment.
Club for Growth:
Run now by former Congressman Chris Chocola, CFG has been bankrolled by libertarian billionaires since it beginnings in the late 1990’s. Founded by Stephen Moore, Dusty Rhodes and Richard Gilder, it helped to define Republican economic orthodoxy in throughout the Bush years. That orthodoxy was fiercely anti-tax, fiercely free-trade and fiercely smaller government. It used to be a useful organization in promoting those economic principles, but these days, it has become fiercely anti-incumbent, even attacking Republicans who have strong conservative voting records.
Americans for Tax Reform:
ATR was the first organization that made politicians sign a pledge to not raise taxes and have that pledge stick not only during the campaign season, but also during the tenure of that member’s service in Congress. The no-tax pledge became problematic for many Republicans who wanted to some wiggle room to pass pro-growth tax reform. ATR generally doesn’t run campaign ads against Republican members of Congress, but the ATR pledge plays a powerful role in primary campaigns. ATR gets support from a variety of sources, including corporate donations.
Heritage Foundation/Heritage Action:
This used to be the preeminent intellectual think tank in Washington, but under the leadership of former Senator Jim DeMint, it has shied away from actually thinking. DeMint once famously said he would rather have 40 ideologically pure conservative Senators than a majority of Republican Majority that wasn’t as ideologically pure. DeMint’s brand of conservatism is starkly anti-immigration reform (a stark contrast from the previous regime), virulently anti-government, intensely skeptical of free-trade, and uncompromising. The Heritage Foundation relies not only on the big money from Conservative Trusts, but also on corporate donations, which makes his anti-corporate, anti-big business rants somewhat problematic for the fundraiser at Heritage.
What once was the Citizens for a Sound Economy (a reliable ally of Congressional Republicans) has become an organization run by a radical named Matt Kibbe who has called for a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Kibbe forced out former House Majority Leader Dick Armey in a nasty spat that spilled into the newspapers, showed the underbelly of the organization. Like Club for Growth, Freedom Works is libertarian in its orientation. According to Dick Armey, it has paid talk radio host Glenn Beck a million dollars to mention it on the air. Where FW used to spend much of its time battling Obamacare, it now spends almost as much time and effort attacking Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.
Americans for Prosperity:
Tim Phillips leads this organization, which is primarily funded by Koch Industries. AFP funds many of the Tea Party groups in the country, and like Freedom Works, tend to be libertarian in its approach. Interestingly, they did not endorse the government shut-down/defund Obamacare strategy endorsed by every other group except for ATR.
Tea Party Groups
Tea Party Express:
Sal Russo is the brains behind the Tea Party Express, and not coincidentally, his campaign firm has reaped the lion’s share of all the spending by the organization. Amy Kremer, the lead spokesperson for the Express, is a former flight attendant for Delta. The Tea Party Express is most famous for its bus tours around the country, and its number one objective, according to its mission statement, is to stop another Wall Street Bailout.
The number one priority of this group is to kick illegal aliens out of the country. Making English the official language is another top priority. Steve Eichler, the head of this group, was closely associated with the anti-immigrant Minute Man organization, and the group has been perhaps the most controversial of the Tea Party factions.
Tea Party Patriots:
This group was co-founded by Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler, who were both listening to Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC and were inspired to start an actual Tea Party organization. Amid the financial crisis, Martin’s home was foreclosed on as her husband’s company went into bankruptcy, and the resulting crisis seemingly radicalized her against the political class. This group says it is funded by the grass roots, but also announced that it had a received a million dollars from an anonymous donor, thought to be Raymon Thompson, a former tech CEO from Montana. The TPP blames Washington for the economic crisis, and is fervently opposed to bailouts and to government intervention in the economy. It also talks a lot about the Constitution. Most analysts believe that the Tea Party Patriots are mostly funded by Freedom Works, but both TPP and FW deny that claim. They are currently accusing John Boehner of declaring war on the American people on their web site.
Single Issue Groups
National Rifle Association:
This is perhaps the most powerful special interest group in Washington. If you can stop a modest gun control effort after the Newtown Massacre, you can do just about anything you want. They don’t stray much from their knitting, and they tend to have powerful friends in both parties, but I list them because they are an important part of the Republican coalition.
Right to Life:
Another powerful coalition partner within the GOP, they sometimes get Republicans involved in unhelpful fights like on contraception or vaginal probes, but usually they are smart enough to stick to the pro-life issues and most Republican members are now strongly aligned with them.
Chamber of Commerce:
This venerable pro-big business group has finally had enough of the Tea party non-sense. It turns out that shutting the government down and almost defaulting on our debt is bad for business. The virulent anger towards corporate America of the Tea Party has also encouraged the Chamber to get more involved in the primary process. If they want to be successful though, they have to start energizing their grassroots operation, which at times has seemed to be dormant. The Chamber generally takes a practical approach to the government ‘s role in the economy. They favored TARP and the Auto bailout, they want more spending on infrastructure, they support IP protection, they want immigration reform, and they are strong proponents of Free Trade.
The Business Roundtable:
Made up a collection of CEO’s and led by former Michigan Governor John Engler, the BRT seems to be hopelessly at odds with the Tea Party movement. Nothing shows this more than their push for a set of education standards known as Common Core, which the Tea Party hates. Big Corporate Titans who make up the BRT at times seem like enemy number one to the Tea Party. Unless they spend some serious money on primaries and a grass roots operation, the BRT will continue to be mostly ignored by Congressional Republicans.
National Federation of Independent Business:
The NFIB used to be a force on Capitol Hill, and in many ways they were a forerunner to the Tea Party movement when they led the opposition to Hillary Health care. But lately, they have been largely ineffective in serving as a bridge between the small business community and the Republican Congressional leadership.
Republican-friendly Outside Groups
American Action Network/American Action Forum:
Run by Brian Walsh and Doug Holtz Eakin, these groups work with Republicans to find and fund good candidates and to help them with policy briefings that actually give real information.
American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS:
Founded by Karl Rove and run by Steven Law, this group is the establishment’s answer to the Tea Party. Like the American Action Network, it seeks to bridge the gap between the business community and Republicans in Congress.
The GOP civil war will largely pit the Tea Party groups and their funders, which include Freedom Works and Club for Growth, against the pro-business groups, like the Chamber of Commerce and the American Crossroads.
In many ways, it will seem more like a circular firing squad and less like a civil war, as on most big issues, there will be some agreement. Big business and the Tea Party agree that their needs to be tax reform, less spending, and less regulation. They all largely agree that Obamacare is terrible and needs to be replaced.
There are some very real disagreements though. The Tea party hates the Republican party and thinks it needs to be replaced with so-called “patriots”. The Tea party, by and large, is against immigration reform, while the business sector is for it. The Tea Party is radical in its approach. Matt Kibbe is a big believer in Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals” approach to governing. The business sector and the Republican leadership tends to be more traditionally conservative in its approach.
The Tea Party groups like to condemn the consultant class, and like to portray themselves as common citizens (that’s why they put Martin and Kremer out in front of the camera) but behind this façade are legions of political operators making a killing.
Boehner was right to declare independence from the most destructive of the groups. You can’t legislate with partners who have no vested interest in achieving an end result, but have every vested interest in condemning whatever final product is achieved.