When a politician accuses a group of being “deceiving” and “bizarro,” you can normally assume he’s talking about the other party. Not so last week in Washington where Republican Senator John McCain accused members of his own party of misleading Americans with unrealistic demands in the debt ceiling debate. Struggling to corral his caucus, House Speaker John Boehner also echoed this sentiment. Frustrated by the refusal of Congressional Republicans to compromise on a budget deal, Boehner told his dissenting colleagues on Wednesday to “get your ass in line.” Republican leadership managed to paper over the split enough to get the debt vote done, but there’s a clear division that could cause the Republican party to fracture into two.
Old guard Republicans, led by politicians like McCain and Boehner, want fiscal restraint but also understand the need to compromise sometimes, such as faced with the urgent need to raise the debt ceiling.Traditional Republicans combine fiscal conservatism with pragmatism: they want to freeze taxes and cut spending but were unwilling to risk economic collapse to get there.
In November, a new element joined the Grand Old Party in Congress. The Tea Party’s passionate appeals to end intrusive government resonate with voters. It also brings populist energy to a party better known for its staid, tasseled-loafer wearing members. But, the Tea Party replaces traditional Republican pragmatism with ideological zealotry.
Like its historical namesake, the Tea Party is a revolutionary movement, seeking to instigate dramatic, wide-reaching change in the way the U.S. government works. They were elected with a clear ideological mandate: cut spending, cut taxes, get government under control. The Tea Party has proven unwilling to compromise and ready flirt with chaos to achieve its mission. Many held out against raising the debt ceiling, showing part of the Tea Party was ready to risk, at a time of fragile recovery, withholding checks to needy Americans, and potentially harming business by an interest rate spike.
The debt crisis made the divisions between traditional Republicans and Tea Partiers ever clearer. The split raises a crucial question: Can the Republican party as it currently exists, riddled with disagreement, survive? The Tea Party’s unwillingness to compromise and its demands for ideological purity suggest that remaining together may prove impossible. I worry that this unhappy marriage seems destined for divorce.