Every time the Republican Party goes through adversity—whether it’s losing an election or suffering a plunge in popularity or falling into what is sometimes called a “civil war”—there are constant internal and (especially) external calls for some exercise in “soul-searching” or “rebranding” or “adjustment to political reality.” In recent years, these wilderness periods have been extremely brief, and have universally concluded with defiant pledges among an array of GOP leaders to remain true to their “conservative principles” regardless of the cost. We’ve seen a reprise of this predictable drama in Virginia this week, with state party chairman Pat Mullins leading a chorus of objections to any ideological recalibration at a GOP retreat.
Sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner, non-Republicans need to accept that the GOP knows exactly where its “soul” is located, and has an agenda that is impervious to significant change. What keeps getting described as a “struggle for the soul” of the party or a “civil war” is generally a fight over strategy, tactics and cosmetics, not ideology. For the foreseeable future, the conquest of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, itself radicalized by the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, is the prevailing reality of politics on the Right, and the GOP’s practical options are accordingly limited to one flavor or another of that persuasion.
Why is that the case? There are a lot of contributing factors, including the GOP’s shrinking but homogeneous “base,” the supremacy of conservative ideological media, and the rise of heavily funded political players determined to root out heresy. But the most important source of rigidity is conservative ideology itself, which does not aim (as do most European conservatives) at “moderating” or countering the bipartisan policies of the past or the Democratic policies of the present, but aspires to a counterrevolution that “restores” what conservatives regard as immutable principles of good government and even culture.
It its most explicit form, that of the “constitutional conservatives” who really dominate discussion within the GOP and who are likely to produce their next presidential nominee, the only genuinely “American” policies, designed by the Founders according to both natural and divine law, involve a free-market economy with extremely limited government and a traditionalist, largely patriarchal culture. These policies, buttressed by an increasingly chiliastic view of the status quo (e.g., the “Holocaust” of legalized abortion, and the social policy “tipping point” at which an elite-underclass alliance will destroy private property and liberty entirely), simply are not negotiable.
The audacity of this agenda, which requires uprooting decades worth of laws, programs and constitutional precedents, many of them supported or even created by Republicans, requires a set of assumptions about electoral victories and defeats that many mainstream media folk or Democrats do not seem to understand. A “victory” that does not lend itself to counterrevolutionary outcomes is far less preferable than a deferred victory that brings down the whole rotten edifice of the welfare state and routs the secular-socialist elites who could survive a RINO administration.
Now all Republican elected officials and operatives do not share a full commitment to constitutional conservatism, and naturally wish “the base” and its activist groups and agitprop centers would tone down their ferocious views so that their bettors could enjoy the fruits of political power. But movement conservatism is the context within which they must operate. And so we see the Karl Roves and the Mitt Romneys who just want the Oval Office, and the business leaders who just want to make money with less state interference, constantly alternating between signing every right-wing litmus test in sight and urging their dogmatic allies to be a little more pragmatic in order to appeal to this or that allegedly detachable constituency of women or Latinos or millennials who don’t share the dreams of The Movement. This inherently unequal struggle is what passes for “civil war” within today’s GOP. It’s a million miles away from the genuinely fraught intraparty battles of yore between Rockefeller and Goldwater or Ford and Reagan.
Many observers who either misunderstand this dynamic or want to change it are putting a lot of stock in a 2016 Republican presidential ticket led by a genuine “pragmatist” like Chris Christie. I just don’t see it. Perhaps Christie, like Romney (and to a large extent John McCain) will be willing to sign enough litmus tests to become acceptable to “the base,” but in so doing he’ll be confirming the desire of many Republicans to disguise or distort their intentions until Election Day is passed and the balloon payment comes due on the mortgage party leaders have taken out with conservative activists. Any way you look at it, though, the “soul” of the GOP is pretty much right in plain site, and if there’s a “civil war” over its agenda, the generals are Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.