Hardly a Skirmish

10.24.13

No Country for Old Moderates

It’s not ‘moderates’ vs. ‘conservatives. The two opposing Republican sides, if they really are opposing, are ‘radical’ and ‘conservative.’ And only one side is fighting. The other is rolling over, says Michael Tomasky.

The more I think about this Republican “civil war,” the less it looks like war to me. It often gives the appearance of being war because these Tea Party people march into the arena with a lot of fire, brimstone, and kindred pyrotechnics that suggest conflict. But what, really, in hard policy terms, are these two sides arguing about? Practically nothing. It’s a disagreement chiefly over tactics and intensity. That’s a crucial point, and so much of the media don’t understand it. But I’m here to tell you, whenever you read an article that makes a lot of hay about this “war” and then goes on to describe the Republican factions as “moderate” and “conservative,” turn the page or click away. You are either in the hands of an idiot or someone intentionally misleading you.

What’s going on presents many of the outward signs of political warfare. Insurgent radical extremists are challenging already very conservative incumbents whose thought and deed crimes are that they are conservative only 80- or 90-something percent of the time instead of 100 (or 110, preferably). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), American Conservative Union 2012 rating of 92, being challenged? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? He got 100 percent in 2012!  Hey, I was joking about that 110!

So sure, running primaries against people like this can be called warlike acts. But a real war has two sides who believe different things and are willing to fight to the death for them. In this war, that description applies only to one side.

This...skirmish, let’s call it, is between radicals and conservatives. (It certainly doesn’t involve moderates; there are roughly four moderate Republicans in Congress, depending on how you count, out of 278.) The conservatives, the more traditional conservatives such as John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and many others in the Senate, and House Speaker John Boehner, could be a force if they wanted to. But by and large, they’ve refused to be. If the GOP had two warring factions, then you might expect that on all major high-profile legislative votes, the schism would evince itself in the roll calls. But when you look back over the list of high-profile measures that have come before them while Barack Obama has been president, the conservatives and the radicals only really split on two occasions.

The radicals may be fighting a war. But the conservatives are executing a classic rearguard action. At best. And that’s not much of a civil war.

One was the fiscal cliff deal as 2013 started. In the House, 85 Republicans backed that deal and 151 voted against it.  In the Senate, the vote was 89-8; 40 Republicans backed and five opposed. (Three Democrats opposed it because the tax-increase threshold went too high, from the expected $250,000 per household to $400,000.) The second was the vote we just had to reopen the government and raise the debt limit. That, of course, passed the House by a comfortable margin, with the support of 87 Republicans, while 144 opposed.  The vote in the Senate was 81-18, with 27 Republicans voting aye and 18 nay. 

That’s it. Interestingly, those two votes show us a radical caucus in the Senate that grew in 10 months from five to 18, while in the House, the radicals have outnumbered the conservatives in a remarkably consistent way. But those are the only diversions from party unity. On all other major matters, matters of policy—Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, cap and trade in the House—there is no disagreement. Everyone, or nearly everyone, votes no. The only really important votes on which these two sides disagree are the votes that threaten fiscal calamity. So that’s all the conservatives stand for. Elect me, and at five minutes ’til midnight, I’ll stand courageously against global economic cataclysm!

One could add one more basis of disagreement. Occasionally, the conservatives cast votes conceding that the government ought to be able to function as designed; you know, with agencies having people run them. But that happens only once about every two years.

Now is the time for them to stand up and say “enough.” An October 7 Washington Post-ABC poll found that just 52 percent of Republicans approved of how Republicans were handling the budget negotiations. That’s margin of error to 50-50. So half of the Republicans in the country disapprove of what the GOP just did.

But they might as well be zero, for they effectively have no representation. The regular conservatives—most conspicuously the craven Boehner, but all the others, too—did nothing to represent these people until the last possible second, and until the radicals demonstrated conclusively that they couldn’t pull off defunding Obamacare.

Think about that. Half of one of our major political parties, constituting many millions of citizens, barely has a voice in Washington. If they did have a voice, none of this late madness would have happened. But the legislators who ostensibly represent them are cowards, kittens, balled up in the corner. The radicals may be fighting a war. But the conservatives are executing a classic rearguard action. At best. And that’s not much of a civil war. And it says a great deal about the character of the Republican Party, and especially of the conservatives. History will remember.