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The Carletonian

The GOP’s Split Personality

< many, it might seem like the battle is over. After all, having just ridden voters’ fears about a poor economy and the enthusiasm of a grassroots conservative movement into the House majority, it might seem like mission accomplished. The second half of the story, the more important half, however, is just beginning. What happened last Tuesday was a wave, and a monumental one to be sure, but it did not determine much about the long-term staying power and viability of the Republican Party. That will happen over the next two years, when the GOP will have to do two things: pick a viable presidential nominee to challenge President Obama in 2012, and show how they actually govern when given this chance.

The inner-dynamics of the Party, however, will pull it in opposite directions. On one side is the Tea Party. With a House majority comes the movement’s pack of aggressive freshman members, chomping at the bit to drastically reduce spending and prove the conservative credentials they had been so eager to burnish on the campaign trail. They are more than willing to read the election as a mandate and will want to be as loud and active as they felt the Democratic majority was before them. They will be eager to ban earmarks, investigate the White House for every potentially minor infraction it can find, and will generally view the next two years as a time to wage partisan war.

On the other side is the establishment, members who have been around the block a time or two. They would like to do things differently than they did when they were previously in power, but they also understand how hard that will actually be. They view the election not as a mandate, but as a second chance. The message to them is not an embrace of Republicans but rather a repudiation of Democrats. They are therefore cautious. They view the Democrats’ biggest mistake as being too active and taking the country too far to the left, and are vowing not to do the same thing in the other direction.

These two sides will likely clash over the next two years, and in fact, it is happening already, as Michelle Bachmann fights to get a spot in the Republican House leadership and Senator Jim DeMint clashes with Mitch McConnell over earmarks. Both of these are significant. Bachmann’s fight, as she has become one of the Tea Party’s leading congressional voices, represents the movement’s attempt at becoming a major player in the governing, not just campaigning, wing of the Republican Party. The earmarks fight, furthermore, is part of the same effort. It signals the conservative insurgency’s attempt at setting the Party’s legislative priorities and actions.
Why, one may ask, are these two sides in conflict in the first place? Hadn’t most Republicans embraced the Tea Party, recognizing its energy was their meal ticket in 2010? Yes and no.

Although Republicans have been eager for that energy, many have been and are cautious about the impact on government were the movement’s champions to actually take power. The worst kept secret in Washington is how much establishment Republicans fear the possibility of a Tea Party nominee like Sarah Palin challenging Barack Obama in 2012. In addition, Republicans may rail against earmarks publically, but privately they know pork is often an essential tool in the legislative process. Meanwhile, they know just how hard enacting legislative change over the next two years will be. With a Democrats still controlling the White House and Senate, any legislation that actually becomes law will be the result of much compromise and bipartisanship, two things the new hardcore conservatives hate. When they come to the realization that the only thing they can really do is make a lot of noise then, they will try to do exactly that.

Yet, if you listen to what leading Republicans in the House, like Speaker-to-be John Boehner and future Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Darrell Issa, are saying, the Tea Party might be disappointed. These guys are the antithesis of Democrats philosophically and will absolutely try to make life tough for the White House and its current resident. That said, they don’t seem to be getting ready to lob any bombs.

Democrats have worried that Issa will push for a large scale investigation of the White House on any frivolous accusation he can get his hands on. Warnings about an impeachment attempt have been sounded throughout Democratic circles. Yet, when asked what he plans on doing, he keeps his talking points to waste, fraud, and inefficiencies. Perhaps his most important statement has been to say that, “Oversight is not and should not be used as a political weapon against the occupant of the Oval Office.” He says he plans on conducting many investigations out of the public eye, with Democrats involved, and with bureaucrats lower down in the government. He has pledged to not politicize investigations whenever possible. Furthermore, he has emphasized that he will be spreading oversight powers throughout congressional committees, strictly focusing on what is under his jurisdiction. He has even said he has no qualms about investigating the Bush administration and Republicans.

John Boehner, in addition, has been eager to lower expectations as much as possible, reminding supporters on election night that the President still sets the legislative agenda. Most of his specific policy initiatives revolve around making the legislative process more open, improving the comity of the chamber, and if you can believe it, not treating Democrats how he felt his Party was treated when it was in the minority. He knows the deep spending cuts actually needed to close the deficit would be wildly unpopular and seems content to just go for the low hanging fruit. This is surely not what new conservatives, who are just as anti-Democratic Party as they are conservative, had in mind when envisioning Republicans in power.

What ends up happening is, of course, anybody’s guess. Like I said, establishment Republicans know that if the Tea Party elects a Presidential nominee like Sarah Palin, Obama will be booking another four years in the White House come 2012. Yet they also know that the enthusiasm the Tea Party provided was key to them regaining power. Whatever happens, how the Party juggles these two competing sides will surely make for one of the most interesting stories of the next two years, as Democrats hope for Republican implosion and Republicans try to keep it together just enough to survive.

-David Heifetz is a Carletonian columnist.

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