WASHINGTON — If you can judge people by the quality of their enemies, one quality shared by many opponents of the tea party is their conservatism. Like many ideological factions, tea party activists display a special intensity in fighting the “near enemy” — other elements on the right that don’t share their tactics. President Obama may be their ultimate foe, but conservative pragmatists are their rivals. And rivals are the more immediate problem.
So the Senate Conservatives Fund runs ads against Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Richard Burr, R-N.C., and other solid Senate conservatives for opposing a counterproductive strategy to defund Obamacare. The circle of tea party purity is drawn so tightly that it excludes Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and John Cornyn, R-Texas — some of the most reliably conservative members of Congress.
Ideological conflict between Republican factions is, of course, nothing new. The modern conservative movement arose in opposition to Eisenhower Republicanism, which it regarded as ideologically compromised. Ronald Reagan challenged and defeated Rockefeller Republicanism — and seldom has a political defeat been more complete. But Reagan still viewed the Republican Party as a coalition, not as a faction. He campaigned vigorously for Republican moderates such as Sens. Chuck Percy, Robert Packwood and Mark Hatfield (who was the congressional chair for his first inauguration).
During the Obama era, Republican ideological conflicts have intensified. The latest round began with a typical, largely healthy revolt against leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who were viewed as tired and uncreative (though easier to criticize than replace). The young guns — including Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor — would finally take on Medicare reform and push big questions about the role of government in American life. This involved political risk but had the virtue of intellectual seriousness.
Tea party populism, however, moved quickly beyond this point. We are no longer seeing a revolt against the Republican leadership, or even against the Republican “establishment”; it is a revolt against anyone who accepts the constraints of political reality. Conservatives are excommunicated, not for holding the wrong convictions but for rational calculations in service of those convictions.
What explains this development? Some of this is a reaction to the unique provocation of Obamacare. Tea party activists assert that the launch of health insurance subsidies and exchanges will cause immediate and pervasive entitlement addiction — creating a permanent new class of Democratic-voting clients of the state. It seems more likely that Americans will see the flaws of a hastily and poorly designed system and express their displeasure in midterm elections. But the notion that the character of the country is about to suddenly change helps explain the state of emergency in tea party circles.
This is reinforced by the development of an alternative establishment — including talk radio personalities, a few vocal congressional leaders and organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action — that creates a self-reinforcing impression of its power to reshape politics (while lacking much real connection to the views of the broader electorate).
And these ideas do have some resonance among conservative activists who are convinced that Republicans lost recent presidential elections because their candidates lacked combativeness. At least, the argument goes, Ted Cruz has some backbone. It is the political expression of pent-up anger. “If we’re going to fight,” says Michele Bachmann, “we need to fight now.” Few believe any longer that Republicans will be able to defund Obamacare in this session of Congress; it is the fight that counts. This is a word that crops up frequently in tea party discourse. Not winning. Not strategy. Not consequences. The fight.
Under normal circumstances, this faction — comprising less than 20 percent of the House Republican Caucus — might exercise a marginal influence. But we have the peculiar situation of a divided Congress and a weak president. The tea party faction holds the margin of victory in a slim Republican House majority. Boehner has kept some semblance of order by appeasing it — an approach of diminishing utility. And now, in a series of budget showdowns, the interests of tea party activists have suddenly aligned with those of President Obama (who needs a dramatic reshuffling of the political deck). Both sides prefer a powerless, discredited Republican leadership.
The problem for Republicans (as Democrats found in the 1970s and ’80s) is that factions are seldom deterred by defeat. Every loss is taken as proof of insufficient purity. Conservatives now face the ideological temptation: inviting an unpleasant political reality by refusing to inhabit political reality.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.