IF THERE HAS been one theme in Republican Party primaries this year — from Eric Cantor’s stunning upset to Thad Cochran’s success in holding back the far right in Mississippi — it is the establishment versus the Tea Party. But with the primary season now wrapping up, a more crucial divide in the GOP is emerging: the one between the party’s presidential and congressional wings. The latter continues to dominate the GOP with potentially calamitous results.

To be sure, the establishment/Tea Party frame has always been a bit overstated. The establishment held back the Tea Party by basically co-opting their issues and rhetoric — while in the process moving the party even more to the right.


This has helped Republicans hold the House of Representatives but has created serious problems for the would-be GOP presidential contenders like Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Paul Ryan. Their chance of winning a national election will depend, in part, on softening the party’s toxic brand, particularly among women and Hispanics. But for congressional Republicans, that’s a recipe for ending up like Cantor.

Last week’s congressional debacle over border security was Exhibit A of this growing tension in the party. Since Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, national Republicans have talked up the need for improving the party’s image among Hispanics, in part by supporting immigration reform.

But this is anathema to House Republicans reliant on the support of voters who would sooner endorse putting Obama’s face on the dollar bill than they would relaxing the nation’s immigration restrictions.

So last week, when faced with the prospect of passing legislation to deal narrowly with the border issue (which Republicans have portrayed as a national crisis), hard-liners in the House recoiled and instead pushed for harsh provisions that called for migrant children to be sent home. As Greg Sargent, a blogger for the Washington Post, nicely put it, the GOP has gone from Romney’s call for “self-deportation” to “maximum deportation.” On the one issue that national Republicans saw as an opportunity to move to the center, the party has gone further right.


It’s not just immigration. If it’s not border security, it’s Benghazi, or talk of impeachment, or lawsuits against the president over Obamacare that play well with conservatives and look like a waste of time to everyone else. After last year’s shutdown debacle, one might have expected a backlash in the GOP over the Tea Party’s scorched-earth policies. But if anything, they seem more powerful than ever.

Republican presidential aspirants already have very little room to maneuver in a party defined by striking ideological unanimity. Finding a Republican who doesn’t support lower taxes, lower spending, less regulation, and repealing Obamacare, and who believes in the science of climate change, is like finding a unicorn. The only real debate among Republicans is over tactics — i.e., how much moderation should be shown in order to soften the party’s image.

Presidential Republicans must hew to the Tea Party’s demand for ideological fealty while trying to find a few issues that would allow them to appear compassionate. For example, in late July, Paul Ryan, the man who authored a congressional budget that would take a sledgehammer to the welfare state, but who now has loftier political aspirations, unveiled an antipoverty proposal that showed a surprising degree of moderation. Rubio has his own antipoverty agenda. Jeb Bush has been vocally calling for compassion to be shown to migrant children. Rand Paul is continuing his outreach to the African-American community.


But the Tea Party caucus in Congress continues consistently to undercut these efforts. And it couldn’t have gone unnoticed by Ryan, Rubio, et al. that the man rounding up House Republicans to oppose reasonable border security legislation was another potential 2016 aspirant — Ted Cruz. His political ascendancy is likely to force the presidential wing of the party to move even further right.

In the end, the most extreme and unelectable GOP politicians — outside red states and conservative-dominated districts — are driving the party’s ideological direction. They are supported and enabled by an equally conservative donor class, and there is zero evidence that a more moderate correction is in the offing. This will not only make it more difficult for the GOP to win on the national level, but will increasingly imperil Republican candidates for statewide offices, too.

That might be good enough to hold on to the House (for now), but in the long term it’s an emerging political disaster for Republicans — and one that risks consigning the party to minority status for years to come.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.