It is amazing when you consider that when the Republican Party was formed in the late 1850’s, its one unifying theme was abolition, the banning of slavery in the United States. By any measure, at the time the elimination of slavery was a very liberal concept. Gradually over time the party of Lincoln moved further and further to the right. That process was greatly accelerated by the defections of very conservative Southern Democrats to the Republican ranks. As the GOP shifted ever further to the right, ultra conservative groups began targeting the most moderate prominent Republicans and drove them one by one from office. The public face of the Republican Party became more and more stridently conservative.
However, throughout this process the Republican establishment remained in control. While voicing the message of social conservatism sacred to many of its rank and file, most of the party leaders concentrated on achieving conservative economic goals and, most importantly, winning control of Presidency and both Houses of Congress. Backed by the big business campaign funding required to win major elections, Republican leaders have been able to keep the radical right extremists at the core of their party centered on nominating electable candidates for national office. Now, however, infuriated by the lack of success of Republican leaders in pushing conservative agendas through Congress and the failures of past establishment Republican Presidential candidates, the rabble rousers of the far right are now in full rebellion.
In Congress what infuriates the radicals most is that fact that despite owning majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Republicans have not been able to pass even one bill that President Obama would have been forced to veto. Republicans enjoy a large majority in the House (247 to 188), but most of their problems have come in the Senate. According to Senate cloture rules, a super majority of 60 Senators is required to bring a bill up for a vote. Since the GOP majority is 54 to 46, Senator Mitch McConnell is able to get bills passed only with the help of the Democrats. That means that the Republican majority in the House can pass as many bills as they would like, and they have passed hundreds of them during this term including over thirty to abolish the Affordable Care Act, but most died in the Senate without even being considered or coming up for a vote.
So the House Republicans are left only with one option if they insist on having their way on a particular issue, like abolishing the Affordable Health act. It is what I will call the catastrophic option, using Congress’ power of the purse to shut down the federal government by refusing to fund all government activities for the following fiscal year. The problem is that the American public does not take kindly to the unemployment, the disruption of commercial activities, and the billions of dollars of lost economic opportunity which results from a government shutdown of any duration.
By and large, the Americans people held the House Republicans responsible for the last government shutdown over Obamacare. So with the Presidential election shifting into high gear and radical GOP House members threatening yet another shutdown over the funding for Planned Parenthood, the Republican leadership in the House desperately wanted to defuse the situation. However, the Republicans have numbers problems in Congress which will make passing an appropriations bill very problematic.
Their first numbers problem is in Senate. The 54 Republicans in the Senate need help from the at least 6 Democrats to even get an appropriation bill to the Senate floor for a vote. Since the Democrats will not vote for a bill that does not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, an appropriations bill containing that funding must be passed by both houses of Congress before the deadline to avoid another shutdown.
Speaker John Boehner has his own numbers problem in the House. With a 247 to 188 Republican majority one would think that he would have had no problems getting the 218 House votes needed to pass any bill. However, within the ranks of his caucus are 40 Tea Party Republicans who have declared they would rather shut down the government than vote for an appropriations bill which contains funding for Planned Parenthood. When their numbers are subtracted from the 247 Republican total, Boehner can depend on only 207 Republican votes for an appropriation bill which could also pass the Senate. If the Boehner has to depend on a deal with Democrats to pass the bill he would lose standing in his caucus and he would face a threat from the radicals to remove him from his position as Speaker.
So for the good his party, Boehner fell on his sword and announced that he would soon be retiring from Congress. With the radical’s threats now moot, as his last act he will make a deal with Democrats to pass a continuing resolution through the House which will keep the government running. However, that resolution will only be valid until the middle December at which point the House will be in the same situation again. If one of Boehner’s allies is elected Speaker, he/she will inherit his rabble rouser problem. On the other hand if one of the Tea Party faction manages to get himself elected Speaker, we are looking at another government shutdown in mid December for sure.
Conventional political wisdom indicates that such a shutdown would probably spell doom for whichever Republican manages to secure his party’s Presidential nomination This explains why John Boehner was willing to shorten his political career to prevent it. On the other hand Tea Party Republicans are basing their hopes on a shutdown animating the Republican base which they believe is an absolute necessity for winning the Presidency. They seem to have forgotten that in addition to an animated base they need the votes of people who will be very turned off if they shut down the government again.
So why do Republican lawmakers want to be responsible for what amounts to political suicide for the Republican Party? Well it comes down to a matter of personal priorities. As much as Republican House members would love to elect a Republican President, they are more worried about their own political skins. Many come from Congressional Districts where radical right voters hold the key to their reelection. They dare not be seen as abandoning the social issues, like opposition to abortion, which those voters hold dear.
So in the final analysis, it is the far right radicals who occupy the heart of the Republican Party who may be pushing the buttons and calling the political shots which could do irreparable harm to the GOP. They don’t care about number problems. They are mad as hell that even with majorities in both Houses, Republicans in Congress have been unable to push forward their conservative social agenda. They are mad as hell at the Republican leaders who previously persuaded them time and again to nominate establishment Presidential candidates who later went down to defeat. They are mad as hell and they are now in full revolt. The Republican autocracy has lost all control of their unruly serfs.
The revolt of angry Republican voters is also exemplified in their current choices in the Republican nomination battle. In every recent poll they have favored anti-establishment candidates such as Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina. Their support for candidates favored by the Republican establishment as “more electable” has fallen with every new poll. It is an ominous sign for conventional Republic leaders that the combined support for Trump, Carson and Fiorina (all outsiders) has exceeded 50% in every recent poll.
If the anti-establishment sentiment eventually coalesces around one of these three outsiders, the Republican voters will have defied the Republican establishment and its big business supporters to nominate a candidate with limited chances of winning the general election. If in addition the Tea Party House members are successful of shutting down the government over the Planned Parenthood funding issue, the chances of the Republicans winning the White house and maintaining control of the Senate will drop to almost zero.
The implications of the current battle within the Republican Party go well beyond the 2016 elections. Demographic trends do not favor the GOP. Unless the Republicans in general become more accommodating of growing demographic segments of the population such as Hispanics, African Americans, and unmarried women, their chances of winning the Presidency and maintaining control of the Senate will grow ever smaller over time. However, at the same time the rebellious super conservatives at the heart of the GOP are pushing Republican candidate to adopt even more radical positions. This is a recipe for disaster for the Republican Party.
Unless Republicans can find a way to repair the current rift in their Party and move it into the future, it may eventually cease to exist as a viable political organization capable to winning national elections. Watching a slow suicide of one of our two national political parties is not pleasant, unless of course you are a Democrat.