Back in the spring of 2012, I wrote a post, Is the Republican Party Dying?, in which I surmised that the GOP, despite its already apparent fissures, was unlikely to collapse any time soon, because of the broad popularity it continued to enjoy at the state level in many parts of the country. Now, in the wake of last week’s House vote on a bill to reopen the government, we have fresh evidence with which to assess the current condition of the party.
The GOP’s troubles appear to be growing, for, with the House vote that ended the government shutdown, the relative strength of the GOP’s intransigent right wing is clear to see.
Here is the vote count and its geographic distribution as depicted in a New York Times interactive graphic on October 17. The yes vote (totaling 235 votes) was composed of 198 Democrats and 87 Republicans. The no vote (totaling 144 votes) was composed entirely of Republicans unwilling to compromise, or to adhere to the advice of the moderate leadership of the party, as embodied in the House Speaker, John Boehner.
The size of the “no vote” is significant and startling, establishing that the more radical “Tea Party” element in the GOP, far from being a minority tendency as often depicted, comprises a MAJORITY of all House Republicans. Far from being a “tail” that is “wagging the dog,” the Tea Partiers have morphed into the dog itself. The only wonder is that they have not yet used their power to depose John Boehner–a miracle that has probably astonished the Speaker himself.
Regarding the “upcountry” character of these more radical Republican characters, the NYT map illuminates how difficult it will be to dislodge them, and why this faction so consistently overestimates its prospects for influencing the mass of the American population. In many states where the suicide caucus lives, it enjoys a virtual monopoly. In 12 states—including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, and Arizona—all the Republican representatives are of the intransigent kind.
These blinkered souls believe, despite the mounting evidence of public opinion polls, that their views command the assent of the American mainstream, and they are confidently planning to extend their geographical sweep into more moderate Republican territory. In the meantime, moderates, alarmed at the immoderation of their right wing, have begun planning to challenge them in the primaries. The battle for control of the GOP will be hard-fought.
But for now, the rest of us have seen how dangerous and desperate political actors can be when trying to hold together a party that’s imploding. Should we condemn John Boehner for accommodating the radicals, or be relieved that no more radical obstructionist is replacing him? The GOP truly is a grand old party, and should its literally elephantine organization collapse, the attendant damage would be catastrophic, not just for the party, but, as we have seen, for the nation too.
Looking back on this period, historians will puzzle over the decision of the GOP to welcome this radical fringe into their party. Even now, the traditional Republicans could recover their dominance by unceremoniously cutting the Tea Party loose. Without the GOP’s support and legitimation, the radicals’ spell would be broken, and their national influence would evaporate overnight.
Moderate Republicans who believe that such destructive zealots are necessary to their party have forgotten about the massive bloc of disaffected voters in the center of the political spectrum, waiting for forward-looking parties and personalities to appeal to them.