Divided They Move Right

At TNR today Tod Lindberg (always among the more reasonable conservative pundits) makes an interesting and valid point about the “minority-of-a-minority” take on the Tea Party’s involvement in the shutdown/default saga by so many center-left writers and gabbers:

[T]he new line among Democrats and progressives is actually a net positive for the GOP and the best thing (in fact, the only good thing) that has happened to the party over the past couple weeks. Because the Republican Party truly is divided now—between a majority that is as staunchly conservative as ever and a minority that is not merely staunchly conservative but manifestly radical in its aims and tactics. It does not hurt, but rather has the potential to help Republicans, for their opponents to acknowledge the division within the party and the status of the Tea Party faction as a very vocal minority….

To the extent the GOP’s internal struggle is understood as a contest between conservatives and radicals, in which the conservatives prevail, it will likely help the party regain some of the ground it has been losing at the center.

This is an updated variation on the theory that the constant reporting on right-wing resistance to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 actually helped the two GOP presidential nominee appear “centrist”–a sort of implied triangulation without the necessity of any kind of Sister Souljah gesture on the part of the candidates themselves.

There’s probably some merit to this argument, though most progressives writing about the “minority-of-a-minority” were making the point that the “mainstream” GOP dog was letting the “radical” tail wag it every single day. But the best way to avoid the implication of some sort of “move to the center” in the Republican Party (a real one would be worth any partisan political cost) is simply by precise language. For one thing, there should be no talk of Republican “moderates” any more, aside from a few outliers. Even Tod eschews that term. But for another, it should be possible to talk–as I very often do here at PA–of (a) a radicalized conservative movement that has pulled the GOP and in some respects the whole political system to the right, and (b) the divisions within the GOP being more about strategy and tactics than about ideology, goals and agendas. Lest we get too carried away by the talk of a “divided GOP,” let’s remember that every single Republican Member of Congress opposed the Affordable Care Act and nearly every one has voted for one or another version of the Ryan Budget, a blueprint that would have been considered quite “radical” until very recently. Let’s don’t let the failure of the “defund Obamacare” strategy turn into a victory for venerable old-school conservatism, much less for moderation. That’s simply not accurate.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.