As I argued in a December 2013 column here at TPM Cafe, a lot of the intra-Republican battles described as representing a “civil war” between “constitutional conservatives” or Tea Party members or “the base” on the one hand, and “Republican Establishment” chieftains or “pragmatists” or “moderates” on the other, are really arguments over strategy, tactics and rhetoric rather than ideology or principle.
And indeed, the less ideological Republicans, having lost the high moral ground to their more ferocious colleagues, rarely challenge conservative orthodoxy as normative for their party, generally offering prudential reasons for downplaying The True Faith as a matter of legislative gamesmanship or superior electability.
The phony-war dynamics of intra-GOP disputes is apparent just under the surface on a remarkably wide range of topics. “Incrementalists” and “absolutists” on reproductive rights issues may battle over “personhood” initiatives or rape-and-incest exceptions or a general tendency to focus on relatively rare late-term abortions. But they all long for the day when abortion — broadly defined to include birth control methods they deem “abortifacients” — is entirely illegal, even if that’s via the route of first allowing states to keep abortion legal as it was prior to Roe v. Wade.
Similarly, some Republicans are embarrassed by the more aggressive tactics of gun advocates, such as allowing people to in churches, bars or on college campuses. But that doesn’t indicate significant willingness to support efforts to extend or even maintain gun regulation, despite massive public sentiment supporting it.
And to cite just one more example, advocates of radical “tax reform” proposals like the “Fair Tax” or the 9-9-9 scheme Herman Cain made famous may seem to diverge in a big way from Republicans focused on reducing capital gains taxes or the top income tax rate. But they all generally agree on making taxes more regressive and focused on income earned from labor rather than capital, and it’s hard to find a GOPer these days who shares Teddy Roosevelt’s advocacy of inheritance taxes.
Rare as real “battles of principle” within the GOP generally are, they do exist, though sometimes they are mixed up with strategic and tactical concerns. A significant if shrinking number of Republicans appear to be attached to comprehensive immigration reform as an end in itself, sometimes on libertarian or free-market grounds, sometimes as a matter of ensuring their business community allies and patrons a ready supply of affordable labor. More prominent lately have been strategic/tactical arguments based on fears of a demographic disaster if Republicans continue to alienate Latino voters. But at present, both principled and “pragmatist” advocates of comprehensive reform have been outgunned in the House GOP Caucus. Reform opponents, too, seem divided between principled nativists (or hard-core legalists) and pols just afraid of “base” hostility to amnesty, which may explain the popularity of “enforcement first” or legalization-without-citizenship positions which straddle the usual battle lines.
But if you want to see a real “civil war” work itself out, watch the rapidly developing fight over foreign policy and defense issues, in which Sen. Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential aspirations are very likely to be the first major casualty.
Paul has been very crafty in revamping without entirely abandoning his father’s non-interventionist foreign policy stance. His first smart step was to display allegiance to Israel, the linchpin of the contemporary conservative global scheme of friends and enemies (he was helped by the turmoil in the Arab world which enabled him to focus on opposition to U.S. assistance to Israel’s rivals rather than to Israel itself). But more generally he has framed his critique of American overseas commitments as attacks on Barack Obama’s diplomatic and military initiatives, very safe territory But as we learned the last week, Paul is exposed as a heretic whenever his positioning takes him beyond standard GOP Obama-bashing into the past or future.
The 2009 video of Paul suggesting that the 2003 Iraq War was in no small part the product of Dick Cheney’s concerns for Halliburton profits didn’t just anger hard-core neoconservative defenders of the nobility of that war. It also carried him well beyond the pale of acceptable criticism of GOP foreign policy and of the two-term elected GOP Vice President of the United States.
So far the backlash has been relatively mild; typical was Rick Lowry’s take at National Review treating Paul’s rap on Iraq to the kind of immature dorm room discourse you might expect from the one-time campus devotee of Aqua Buddha. But Lowry also made it clear that Paul was espousing views that placed him “to the left of most mainstream Democrats,” disqualifying him for the presidency. In the end Paul may have made at least mild dissent from decades of Reaganite pro-military orthodoxy a bit more acceptable within the Republican Party. But anything more fundamental would indeed require a “civil war.”
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.
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