The most significant points of inflection in our politics may be within the Republican Party, but the struggle between the two versions and visions of the GOP is having the peculiar effect of shaping the Democratic administration just beginning to take the reins in Washington.
That intraparty Republican fight — over Donald Trump’s style, comportment, and responsibility for the Jan. 6 deadly riot on Capitol Hill — is warping the interparty relationship that ordinarily defines Washington. It is moving the axis of conflict in American politics from Congress to the Republican tent.
The result is a disruption of President Joe Biden’s playbook. He hoped to break some Republicans away to back some of his initiatives. Now the GOP lawmakers who might have leaned toward him in a bow to his triumph with the voters in the 2020 presidential election — and in the hopes of appealing to voters weary of bitter partisanship — instead are leaning away.
All this is a result of one of the principal characteristics of a two-party political system. Because it is so difficult for an outside party to pierce the iron hold that the two established parties have on our politics, great issues sometimes must be worked out within a single party.
That is what happened during the civil rights era, when, from the 1940s to the 1960s, the Democrats fought over racial segregation before finally resolving to heed the words of Mayor Hubert Humphrey of Minneapolis, who at the party’s convention in 1948 said, “The time is now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” That was the beginning of the process of, as Democratic activist Joseph Rauh would put it, tying “civil rights to the masthead of the Democratic Party forever.”
The reverse happened with the Republicans on abortion rights; the party’s 1976 platform acknowledged that there “are those in our Party who favor complete support” for legalized abortion, but four years later, with Ronald Reagan in control of the GOP, the platform expressed “our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”
Today’s politics are marked by an important, unavoidable characteristic: a form of discipline in the parties that until recently had been foreign to the American experience.
This development has been long in the making. In 2014, for example, a Pew Research study found that ideological overlap had all but vanished; some 92 percent of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat, with 94 percent of Democrats to the left of the median Republican.
In the dispute between Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the kernel of the new American politics. Trump may be on the sidelines, but he remains at the center of controversy.
That is what is different about the current split in the Republican Party, which for more than a century has been the staging ground for political struggle.
Indeed, the Republicans have torn themselves apart before — first when Theodore Roosevelt began to grow impatient with his protege William Howard Taft, in 1910; then when partisans of Dwight D. Eisenhower and forces loyal to Taft’s son Robert, an Ohio senator known as Mr. Republican, fought over the ideological profile of the Republicans at mid-century; and when former governor Ronald Reagan of California challenged the moderate views of president Gerald R. Ford a quarter-century later.
But those fights — and the battle about the role of religious conservatives in the GOP, beginning in the Reagan years — were primarily struggles about ideology. This is an entirely different sort of battle.
The current war within the GOP has nothing to do with ideology. Trump and McConnell agree on almost everything, which is why the owl-faced lawmaker shepherded the Trump tax cuts and the Trump court nominees to victory on Capitol Hill, sometimes with arguments that mixed tortured logic with opportunism. The current battle isn’t about the character of the Republican Party, but about the character of its last president. Long-suffering but long silent, McConnell finally declared his independence from Trump.
The dispute about whether the 45th president is a villain or a visionary will be a feast for historians, many of whom already rank Trump at the bottom of the presidential heap. But the debate inside the Republican Party will have the peculiar effect of changing the equilibrium of all of American politics — and already is blunting Biden’s efforts to forge some bipartisan alliances.
The reason for Republicans’ reluctance to accept Biden’s olive branch: to prevent themselves from being targeted by Trump and his allies on the right. But the internecine battles continue — and they have stolen the attention from the new president. The Donald Trump Effect continues to rule American politics.
David M. Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.