WASHINGTON — It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, Republicans issued a call to pull together, broaden the party’s appeal, and develop a far more inclusive message.
But the GOP’s civil war is now raging stronger than ever, with top leaders fighting amongst themselves over the pending double-barreled threats of a government shutdown and debt default. The battle is being waged in a far more public way than it was in the last several fiscal crises.
The GOP’s failure to heal the party’s rifts could, with a shutdown, threaten the economy by putting hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work and, in the process, produce another vivid display of Washington dysfunction.
Many Republicans are worried about what could become a harmful pattern for the party, and maybe even derail GOP hopes of winning control of the Senate in next year’s midterm elections.
“We have to find a way to broaden the message,” said Craig Robinson, who runs the Iowa Republican, an influential website in the key swing state. “Right now we’re a one-note party. I know Americans like reality TV because of all the drama. But come on, who wants to watch this?”
The intraparty warfare, spilling out from cable television shows to the floor of the US Senate, prolongs a rift within the party that has been festering since 2009, when the rise of the Tea Party movement threatened the GOP establishment.
The heart of the dispute, then and now, boils down to an intense disagreement over pragmatism on one hand versus ideological purity on the other.
Longer-serving lawmakers such as Senator John McCain of Arizona believe compromising to keep the government open is the prudent course for the party, warning that the Tea Party’s single-minded focus on using threat of a government shutdown as leverage to win concessions on President Obama’s health care law is a self-destructive path.
The Tea Party wing, represented by new firebrands like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and fueled by outside groups and fervent conservatives back home, believe they can rewrite the Washington rulebook and create a new political reality. Although some predicted the new crop of conservatives elected in 2010 and 2012 would adapt to the deal-making culture of Washington, they show no signs of backing down.
As a result, GOP veterans, after once embracing the energy and enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement, are openly expressing frustration with the intransigence of their newer colleagues.
“A lot of them don’t have experience in politics or government or knowing what it takes to get things done,” said Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York. “It’s a different mind-set.”
McCain, who earlier this year called his Tea Party colleagues “wacko birds,” said he had never seen the type of gridlock that is infecting Washington.
“We are dividing the Republican Party rather than attacking the Democrats,” McCain said Friday on CBS. “It is very dysfunctional.”
But on the heels of two consecutive presidential election losses, the GOP lacks powerful leaders who can unite the party behind a common strategy and vision.
“There’s really a sort of leadership vacuum, or a megaphone vacuum,” said John Brabender, a national Republican consultant. “There is nobody within the party with a loud enough voice to become the rallying cry, who the party is going to be with.”
Instead, he added, “It is fractured, it is fragmented around these different groups.”
Cruz led the charge in the Senate for those who want to leverage the government shutdown to attempt to defund the health care law. He was able to persuade 18 other Republican senators to try to help him stall the legislation, but 27 others did not go along, illustrating the division within the caucus.
The message appeared to resonate, nonetheless. In a sign that there is a strong desire for Cruz's message among conservatives, a new poll on Friday had him as the top choice among Republican presidential primary voters.
With midterm elections just over a year away, the deep divisions are threatening to hamper the party’s ability to retain the House and capture the Senate. The Republican National Committee report six months ago recommended focusing on topics like immigration, which could help the party appeal to Hispanics, a growing part of the electorate but one that has been much more likely to vote for Democrats.
The Senate passed an immigration overhaul, but it has gone nowhere in the House. And with the budget and debt debate taking center stage for the next several months, any movement on immigration is unlikely.
Paradoxically, the one topic that has previously united Republicans — their opposition to Obama’s health care law — is now tearing them apart. Most conservatives, particularly in the House, have said they are willing to vote to fund the government only if the health care law is defunded or delayed.
Other Republicans, particularly in the Senate, argue that strategy is unrealistic, and will not only cause economic damage, but will leave Republicans to blame for inflicting it.
“Elections have consequences, and those elections were clear in a significant majority,” McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said last week on the Senate floor. “The majority of the American people supported the president of the United States and renewed his stewardship of this country.”
Like McCain, other influential voices — including the Wall Street Journal editorial board, the Chamber of Commerce, and top political adviser Karl Rove — have urged House Republicans to avoid the type of shutdown brinkmanship that Tea Party conservatives are pushing.
Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said on Friday that he disagreed with trying to defund Obama’s health care law under threat of a government shutdown.
“We’re more effective tactically not to use a shutdown of some kind to pursue the . . . anti-Obamacare objective,” Romney told CNN. “I don’t think that will be as effective.”
But Tea Party activists, as well as the Club for Growth and Heritage Foundation, are in no mood to listen to their party’s past two presidential nominees, who, of course, both failed to win. They have urged the party to remain united in doing everything possible to block the health care law.
“We must all hang together or we most assuredly will all hang separately,” Cruz, quoting Benjamin Franklin, said last week during a marathon 21-hour speech.
Democrats have been largely on the sidelines, happy to watch the Republican infighting without getting much involved.
“They’re in this ditch, and they want to get out of it, but they keep digging deeper and deeper and deeper,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid said on Thursday. “And this ditch is . . . they can hardly see out of the top of it now. I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
President Obama has scolded Congress for not acting, but he hasn’t been in active negotiations. Obama supporters have felt burned by past negotiations, saying it was a mistake to try to cut any broad bargain.
Just hours before a government shutdown, there are few signs of a resolution. But even if this crisis is averted, the legislation under consideration funds the government only until Nov. 15, meaning there will be another shutdown threat in less than two months. And next month, the government will start defaulting on its loans unless Congress votes to raise the debt ceiling.
It means the battle over the budget, the deficit, and the president’s health care law — as well as for the soul of the Republican Party — will only continue.
“To some degree the Republicans are playing a high stakes poker game to see where it ends up,” Brabender said. “It could end up really well. Or it could be a disaster.”