By Carten Cordell │ Watchdog.org
ALEXANDRIA — What was once a minor fissure in the GOP has expanded into a major ideological fault line, dividing the party from its upstart tea party faction.
Political strategist Karl Rove fanned the flames this month by announcing his creation of the Conservative Victory Project, a fundraising group designed to protect GOP incumbents from tea party-backed challengers, who have often won their primary campaigns — and then sometimes foundered in the general election.
A political party divided over its ideological direction and trying to bridge the gap between diverging political factions may seem like a new development, but it isn’t.
In 1968, the Democratic Party, divided between the big-labor establishment and the anti-war movement left, saw its base cleaved by the riots of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, then was smashed in presidential elections for the next 20 years, with Jimmy Carter’s success in 1976 — following Vietnam and Watergate — an outlier.
Today’s GOP faces a similar divide. On the one hand is the establishment Republican faction, sometimes dubbed “RINOS” (Republicans In Name Only) for their moderate policies. They face off against tea party congressmen, who have shown resistance to government spending and expansion.
The Democrats’ experience could provide a model for bridging the split.
“There is somewhat of a civil war going on in the (GOP) as there was a civil war with the LBJ, Humphrey — though he disassociated himself from LBJ and the war — Democrats and the McGovernites,” said James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies and a former legislative assistant to Sen. Hubert Humphrey.
“The same thing is going on now, but it’s over different issues in the Republican Party. They are trying to define what they are and how they can win.”
The tea party rose after the defeat of the GOP in the 2008 elections, a reaction to the Obama administration and the policies of more moderate Republicans. But both parties have had to navigate a surging grassroots movement that threatened to upend the parties’ leadership.
Part of the Republican divergence can be traced back to 1995, when new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich dismantled a committee leadership structure based on seniority, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.
“I think the answer is really in institutional control of the political party,” Kidd said. “The value of appointing people who have seniority is that these are people that know the process. They know how to get along and do the work.
“Newt Gingrich tore that structure apart, and Republicans are paying the price for it now because it emboldened and empowered rebels.”
So the battle lines have been drawn in the Republican Party for who will represent it at the polls, and Rove is betting on his experience, funding and campaign apparatus to back candidates over a sometimes fractious tea party coalition.
One distinction Kidd sees between the Democrats’ split and that of the tea party is how the tea party identifies itself by holding separate responses from the Republicans to State of the Union addresses and forming separate caucuses. The New Left were trying to gain control of the Democratic Party, he said, rather than split from it.
“I don’t know that tea partiers are fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party as much as they are fighting both political parties,” he said. “I think tea partiers, while they recognize that they are conservatives and their better fit is with the Republican Party, see the party establishment as much of the problem as Democrats.
“The fact they gave a separate State of the Union response means they are still alive, and the idea that they are separate, from the outside, pushing both political parties, is still alive.”
The Democrats finally unified their base with a similar strategy, by using movements within the party, like the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group formed in 1985 and partly responsible for Bill Clinton’s election in 1992.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said the Democratic split was more severe than the GOP’s current rift. But unlike Kidd, Kondik said he sees the tea party not as a third party, but as trying to change the trajectory of GOP in a fashion similar to the DLC.
“I think the sole purpose of the tea party is to pull the Republican Party right,” he said. “The DLC was trying to pull the Democratic Party to the center. The DLC is not a grassroots movement the way the tea party is. (The DLC is) probably the opposite of a grassroots movement.
“In a certain sense, the Rove group just might end up being a counterbalance to groups that already intervene in primaries.”
As with the Democrats in 1968, Thurber said, the divergent factions of the 2013 GOP will ultimately be forged together in the crucible of the national party. That will embed certain tea party principles in the Grand Old Party.
The tea party is “changing the party, and the party will change them, in my opinion,” he said. “Of the Democrats, the far left stayed out of the election in 1968. Nixon got elected, some people think, because of that. They got alienated and didn’t start another movement that had much impact on the outside.
“I think eventually the tea party people will become part of the party in government and outside of it. They already are, and they will use the party apparatus to help control recruitment and bring people of like mind in to run.”
But winning cures all, Kondik said, and if the GOP can capitalize on the natural course of politics and claim the White House in 2016, the divide may heal itself.
“It’s possible that the Republicans don’t really need to change that much to win the election in 2016,” he said. “There’s a lot of soul-searching going on after 2012. I think the soul-searching will be more important if the Republicans lose in 2016. If you look ahead, the ebb and flow of American politics suggests they should have a pretty good shot at winning.”
Contact Carten Cordell at [email protected].