The looming GOP civil war -- whether Mitt wins or not
By: Jonathan Martin
November 5, 2012 04:39 AM EST
WEST CHESTER, Ohio — Mitt Romney’s boisterous rally here Friday night featured both the promise of the Republican Party’s future and a sharp reminder of why the GOP may lose its second consecutive presidential race on Tuesday.
The scene in this Cincinnati suburb also set the stage for the party’s coming inner struggle to define itself no matter this cycle’s outcome.
A cadre of young and diverse Republican officials took the stage to speak before Romney. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte each made the case for their nominee and offered a reminder of the strength of the GOP’s bench.But they did so before a crowd that was nearly all-white and their appearances were sandwiched in between slashing speeches from a familiar roster of older white males like Rudy Giuliani, who took it upon himself to demand that President Barack Obama resign over the Benghazi attacks.
Regardless of whether Romney wins or loses, Republicans must move to confront its demographic crisis. The GOP coalition is undergirded by a shrinking population of older white conservative men from the countryside, while the Democrats rely on an ascendant bloc of minorities, moderate women and culturally tolerant young voters in cities and suburbs. This is why, in every election, since 1992, Democrats have either won the White House or fallen a single state short of the presidency.“If we lose this election there is only one explanation — demographics,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
But Republicans are divided on the way forward. Its base is growing more conservative, nominating and at times electing purists while the country is becoming more center than center-right. Practical-minded party elites want to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, de-emphasize issues like contraception and abortion and move on a major taxes-and-spending deal that includes some method of raising new revenue.
But many rank-and-file Republicans in Congress and grass-roots activists won’t sanction amnesty for undocumented immigrants, are determined to advance restrictions on abortion and have no appetite for any compromise with Democrats on fiscal issues. And that doesn’t even get at the growing cleavage on foreign policy in the GOP between the party’s hawkish wing and the rising voices who prefer a more restrained role abroad.There’s not much of a moderate wing left in the GOP, but the pragmatism versus purity battle that looms on the horizon could be as fierce as Republicans have seen since the Goldwaterites sought to wrest control of the party in the 1960s.
Now, as then, the establishment is made up mostly of older pragmatists, such as Romney, House Speaker John Boehner and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And it’s the younger “Red Dawn Republicans,” like Jindal and likely Texas senator to-be Ted Cruz, who are the true believers.
This split will loom over the GOP for the next few years whether Romney is in the White House or on the beaches of La Jolla. If he becomes the 45th president in January, Romney will have to tread carefully as he grapples with a conservative-dominated Republican House, a Senate GOP increasingly divided between old bulls and younger true believers and thousands of party activists who opposed him in two presidential primaries.
“He’ll have half the party watching him every morning,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, calling the House GOP “the bedrock he’ll have to maneuver around.”
A Romney loss would mean the same internal issues would come to the fore more quickly and explosively but with no clear leader at the top of the party. Consider all the voices who’d jockey for attention: the pragmatic Senate and House GOP leadership; next-generation stars like Rubio and Paul Ryan; older reformers led by Jeb Bush; conservative stalwarts like Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky ; and the talent-rich ranks of current Republican governors. These forces would all assert their authority in the lead-up to what could be a sprawling 2016 presidential primary that renders a judgment on which direction the party will take.
The fault lines are already clear: True-believers will say, see, this is what happens when you nominate moderates — John McCain lost in 2008 and Romney lost in 2012 because they couldn’t or wouldn’t make the case for conservatism.
“Structurally, a Romney loss, following a McCain loss, would be a rebuke to moderates who have wanted ideological conservatives to fill the bus but not drive the bus,” said a GOP operative close to one sure-fire future presidential aspirant. “The nominee in 2016, if he is not a President Romney, will certainly be a card-carrying movement conservative with a track record to match.”
The pragmatists will howl at this and point to the underlying issues in the electorate.
“If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I’m going to go nuts,” said Graham. “We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”
Of the party’s reliance on a shrinking pool of white men, one former top George W. Bush official said: “We’re in a demographic boa constrictor and it gets tighter every single election.”
The first big issue that Republicans will confront is the so-called fiscal cliff and whether to cut a major deal on entitlements and taxes with Democrats in a divided Senate. Veteran GOP officials think a President Romney would be much more likely to win support for a compromise from tea party-backed Republicans than a second-term Obama.
“They’ll want to support their president,” said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour of congressional hard-liners. Barbour, aping the voice of a House or Senate conservative said: “’He don’t agree with me on everything, but at least he’s trying to take our country in the right direction.’”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah.), a young conservative, added of Romney’s ability to bring along more ideological elements of his party: “That’s exponentially more true because of Paul Ryan’s presence. He has the personal relationships and street cred to make that happen. That’s one of the reasons Mitt selected him.”
If Romney loses, the party will almost certainly be far more divided when it comes to a grand bargain. Potential 2016 hopefuls like Ryan and Rubio will be hesitant to support any deal that could make their right flank vulnerable in a GOP primary.
Chaffetz thinks that congressional conservatives would take their cues from Ryan.
“Win or lose, Paul is the most influential guy in the House and probably the Senate,” he said.
Some sort of fiscal agreement could be finessed with the conservative base if it’s sold as tax and entitlement reform, if individual rates do not go up and it’s exemptions and deductions that are eliminated.
“We as Republicans would be smart to tell our Democratic colleagues that we will eliminate deductions and apply the revenue to the deficit if you take on entitlements,” said Graham. “But if we become the party that can’t compromise, in the view of the average person we’ll get punished.”
Yet while there may be a way to make a grand bargain palatable to the rank-and-file conservatives, immigration reform is much more clear-cut and therefore tougher to find consensus around and may be even more illustrative of the internal civil war Republicans seem on the verge of.
After getting pounded on it in election after election, some congressional Republicans will seek to deprive Democrats of having the issue every two years. But anything that smacks of amnesty will face fierce resistance in the ranks of a GOP caucus that is even more conservative than when the issue was debated in 2007, to say nothing of the likes of talk radio and cable opponents.
To some longtime Republicans, the party faces an existential question on immigration.
“Once we deal with the issue, we’ll have a permanent majority for a generation,” said Gingrich. “But until we do, we’re permanently in danger of losing.”
Gingrich’s solution, regardless of whether Romney wins: “It’s going to require Jeb Bush coming to Washington for about six months and working directly with Marco Rubio and building a bipartisan majority. We really need Jeb to live in Washington for six months to get this done.”
Barbour, an outspoken supporter of immigration reform, said the key is to make the economic argument for why reaching an agreement on the issue makes sense.
“Let’s just say 5 million of the 12 million [undocumented immigrants] have a job, pay taxes, have a family and children here — they’re residents who contribute,” he said. “Let’s say we deport all of them — well who’s going do those 5 million jobs? Are we going to find 5 million Americans to do them? Not a chance.”
But the opposition to a bill that includes legal status for undocumented immigrants will face roadblocks from congressional Republicans, regardless of who is in the White House.
“ ‘Comprehensive’ seems to be code word for amnesty,” said Chaffetz, who won his seat following a primary against a Republican who was a moderate on immigration. “I don’t think that’s doable.”
But even if there is an immigration reform bill passed, some pragmatists fear a scenario in which the issue becomes relitigated in a future GOP primary. It’s easy to envision, for example, a Republican going to Iowa in 2015 and campaigning for much of the year on a pledge to repeal “Obama’s amnesty law.” The specter of that could stop future presidential hopefuls such as Ryan and Rubio from being party to any deal.
“Too many Republicans treat harsh immigration rhetoric the way a smoker treats cigarettes,” lamented GOP strategist Todd Harris. “You know it’s going to kill you, but you do it anyway.”