The Conservative Cage Match: What Dissent Among Republicans Means for 2016

Liam Murphy, JHU:

Fresh off a dominant performance in November’s midterm elections, Republican lawmakers would appear to be sitting pretty. After gaining a 54-seat majority in the Senate and widening its margin in the House, conservatives have secured for themselves the ability to push a legislative agenda through both chambers of Congress and curtail the ambitions of President Barack Obama. From a strictly partisan standpoint, Republicans seem to have become better suited to meet the needs of the American voter—their control of 31 governorships only accentuates this fact. Yet as lawmakers in the new Republican majority begin to pursue legislation on issues including immigration, energy policy and even military action against ISIS, the rhetorical and ideological divide within their ranks continues to widen. It may not look it, but in spite of its stranglehold in Congress and the impending departure of a Democratic president, the Republican Party is undergoing an identity crisis.

The nature of the current dichotomy among conservative voices is complex; it is the byproduct of evolving social, economic and demographic conditions. To some extent, its manifestation is also the direct result of an increasingly skewed electoral map. Gerrymandering has made congressional districts more homogenous and partisan, contributing to the success of polarizing figures on both sides of the aisle. Socioeconomic, demographic and electoral changes have precipitated the fission present in today’s GOP. But although the roots of contemporary Republican identity are fascinating, we will instead turn our attention toward two more pertinent questions: what the development of the new gorge in conservative ideology says about the current state of the party; and how this pervasive factionalism might impact the 2016 presidential election.

The most important lenses through which to view the current state of the Republican Party involve issues of social, foreign and fiscal policy. Traditionally, Republicans have united on the aforementioned topics. For several decades, the party remained steadfast in its support of limited spending, ‘big stick’ diplomacy, and invocations of religion and states’ rights on social issues. Under the Obama administration, however, ideological solidarity among Republicans has given way to rhetorical inconsistency and discord. Whenever it seems conservatives agree on an issue, a new faction or pseudo-caucus develops—just look at the House’s new, invite-only Freedom Caucus, a reaction to the establishment-friendly Republican Study Committee (1). Perhaps most fascinating, though, is that the ideological fission between today’s conservatives is not the little guys’ battle for legitimacy; it is a full-fledged cage match between the heavyweights of the Republican Party. More specifically, the infighting that has become common on issues like immigration reform, healthcare, unions, education and gay marriage has begun to entangle the growing field of 2016 hopefuls. To understand this widening ideological gap and its ramifications for next year’s election, it is helpful to take a look at some of the Republicans that are expected to vie for the presidential nomination, and where they stand on the issues.

The Party Pariahs

The first and perhaps the most boisterous category of conservative are the GOP’s ideological pariahs, who have been prominent since the wake of the Tea Party takeover in 2010. Among those conservative outcasts with presidential ambitions are Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Both have garnered their share of admiration and scrutiny in the past few years, enhancing their national appeal but also magnifying their divergences from establishmentarian views. Cruz became infamous for his hardline stance on repealing Obamacare in late 2013. His persistence and charisma have preserved his relevance, though, and it remains likely he will continue to steer debate among conservatives to the right in the coming months, even if he does not become a true contender.

Rand Paul’s place in the party is far less clear, much like his father before him. Where Rand diverges from Ron, however, is in his ability to appeal to a wider audience, especially the conservative base. Still, the younger Paul’s views represent a strong departure from typical Republican positions. Although he maintains his quixotically isolationist and libertarian stances, Paul’s persistent advocacy of small government and states’ rights has led many experts to believe he may end up being more than the party’s next loopy libertarian grandpa. Ultimately, it seems that the buzz surrounding Paul and Cruz may be enough to carry them into primary season and allow them to shake things up, but their dedication to anti-establishment conservatism is unlikely to be viable on the national stage.

The Maligned Moderates

In Congress, some of the most established moderate Republican voices include Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain (R-AZ). Although these lawmakers and their allies in Congress actively square off against Cruz, Paul and the extreme voices of their party (and Democrats, of course), it is unlikely we will see any established moderates from Congress run for president in 2016. Instead, it seems that if there are to be any moderates among the Republican field, they are more likely to come from the Republican Governors Association than the House or Senate. The two most prominent (and moderate) Republican governors considering a run are Ohio’s John Kasich and New Jersey’s Chris Christie, both of whom have achieved tremendous popularity in their home states, while garnering ire from Congressional Republicans and conservative pundits alike. Kasich, who took office in 2011, has had success slashing taxes and battled unions actively (if not successfully) in his short time as governor of Ohio, a critical swing state and confirmed home of the 2016 Republican National Convention. But Kasich has seen a flurry of criticism of late, largely due to his inability, if not reluctance, to prevent his state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Still, Kasich remains relevant, popular among moderates, and from a swing state, factors that could very well make him the GOP’s next vice presidential nominee.

The decline of the most moderate of the GOP’s 2016 hopefuls, Chris Christie, has been defined by waves of scandals and public relations messes. First, there was Hurricane Sandy, in the aftermath of which Christie drew criticism—albeit unfairly—for commending President Obama’s handling of the crisis. Then there was “Bridgegate” in 2013, which saw Christie evade responsibility for massive delays on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge that were reported to have been the result of deliberate political retribution from within the Christie’s staff. The media frenzy surrounding the Fort Lee lane closure and Christie’s bizarre responses to the scandal lingered into 2014, seemingly burying any coverage of his commanding 2013 reelection win.

Since then, Christie has for the most part avoided controversy, though his recent public ambivalence on the issue of vaccinations seemed to reignite concerns about his viability as a legitimate 2016 candidate. Only time will tell, but with less than a year until the Iowa caucuses, it seems Governor Kasich is more ready for the national stage than his New Jersey counterpart.

The Up-and-Comers

Arguably the most dynamic and appealing potential candidates in the Republican Party are Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose youth, conservative vigor, and legislative gusto have been critical to their meteoric rises. Rubio, who like Kasich hails from a pivotal electoral state, has been remarkably active and vocal during his first term in the Senate. He has frequently butted heads with the party establishment, challenged President Obama’s foreign policy on Cuba and the Ukraine crisis, and managed to avoid the reputation of a loose cannon like Cruz and Paul. Like Cruz, he represents an unusual demographic among Republicans: the Latino conservative. Some believe Rubio’s ethnicity could be the missing link in the Republicans’ national electoral strategy. Rubio’s unusually middle-of-the-road stance on immigration testifies to his desire to appeal to Hispanic voters on the national stage. Still, many believe Rubio’s draw among Hispanic voters may not be significant enough; a recent article in Politico shows the Florida Senator winning less than 30% of the Latino vote in hypothetical scenarios against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden (2). Whether a national campaign could enhance Rubio’s appeal among Hispanic voters and other demographics is unclear, but it will certainly remain an important factor in his decision to run and his potential as a presidential candidate.

Like Rubio, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took office in 2011, and since then has pursued an aggressive conservative agenda, much to the delight of pundits and party leaders. Walker’s trademark achievements as governor have included three fiscally conservative budget proposals and a rejection of healthcare funding from the Affordable Care Act. Some of his more controversial battles—his showdown with government unions in 2012 and the prolonged legal struggle over his proposed Voter ID laws (which were ultimately barred by the Supreme Court), for example—are indicative of Walker’s dedication to the conservative code, but also serve as warning signs of his inability to appeal to moderate and liberal voters. Governor Walker’s recent remarks (or lack thereof) on the topic of evolution also signal he—much like Christie—may be unprepared for the relentlessness of the national spotlight. Regardless, it is worth noting that since his first bid for public office in 1993, Walker has won thirteen elections and lost none. This fact, coupled with Walker’s record of consistent conservatism—however unrepresentative of the national electorate it may be, suggests the Wisconsin governor might just contend for his party’s nomination in 2016.

The Big Bad Bush

Hitherto we have discussed several senators and governors who many believe to be the contenders for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. In particular, we have looked at the ways in which the potential candidates are different: how they handle the media (see: Chris Christie), how their demographic backgrounds might influence a candidacy (see: Marco Rubio), conservative policies they have pursued (see: Scott Walker). All of these factors are critical in evaluating our final GOP contender, John Edward Bush. Bush, who served as governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, seems to shine when assessed in terms of the latter two prisms. During his time in office, Jeb succeeded in establishing his conservative credentials while maintaining support from a wide range of voters. Where Bush’s term was a positive departure from typical Republican demographic trends was in his ability to appeal to minority voters, especially Latinos. During his 2002 reelection bid, exit polls showed that Bush earned more than 40% of the Hispanic vote (with some estimates putting him at closer to 50%), a remarkably high number for a Republican but one that is low in comparison to the more than 60% of the Latino vote he earned in 1998 (3) Some believe the reason for Bush’s unusual popularity among Florida Latinos is because he has a Mexican-born wife, Columba, and speaks fluent Spanish. To be sure, these factors contribute to Jeb’s ability to campaign for the Hispanic vote far more effectively than his fellow Republicans—and many Democrats, for that matter. It is also worth considering, however, that Florida’s Latino population is distinctly Cuban and distinctly conservative, a stark contrast from the political leanings of most Hispanic voters nationally. Moreover, Jeb’s unique cross-demographic appeal has likely been diluted at least to some degree by the rise of fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. Nevertheless, Bush’s success in rallying minority voters alone could make him a dangerous candidate in 2016.

Although they remain important factors to consider, Jeb’s conservative track record and demographic dynamism do not separate the former Florida governor from the rest of the pack—Rubio and Cruz will steal attention and votes from Hispanic voters, Walker and Kasich will tout their more up-to-date conservative achievements as governors. But there is one area, a vital facet of political life, where the younger Bush holds a distinct advantage over his younger, more legislatively active counterparts: fundraising. At his recent Wall St. dinner party, which boasted a $100 million price tag, Bush stumped for the monetary support of New York’s biggest bigwigs. The event was only one flashy example of the aggressive fundraising Bush’s nascent campaign is expected to feature. It is also representative of the gravitas the Bush name appears to still hold, a fact that Jeb has already begun to use to his advantage—his outlining of ‘reform conservatism’ at the Detroit Economic Club is nothing more than a rebranding of GWB’s doctrine of ‘compassionate conservatism’ that contributed to his 2000 presidential win.

Jeb’s fundraising ability (and the Bush dynasty’s profound impact thereupon) is an area in which many of his would-be competitors will be unable to compete. But Bush’s name-recognition, moneymaking prowess and wide conservative appeal may not be enough to overshadow the ideological change of heart he has displayed in his time out of office. In recent months, the former firebrand conservative has moved to the middle—if not the left—on pivotal issues such as immigration reform and Common Core education standards. These revised positions, likely the building blocks of Bush’s ‘reform’ platform, have already concerned his fellow conservatives, from the establishment to the wildcard wing of Cruz and Paul. Some believe Jeb’s new moderate streak could spell trouble in the crowded and cacophonous Republican primaries, much like how Mitt Romney struggled in 2008 and 2012 to escape the legacy of the healthcare system he orchestrated as governor of Massachusetts. Yet while Bush’s pivot toward the middle may present a legitimate hurdle in the primaries, it sets him up beautifully to compete in the general election. Whereas Romney had to run to the right in the primary and back to the left in the general (sounds exhausting!), Jeb can simply trumpet his career of conservatism, let his rambunctious and inexperienced counterparts bludgeon each other, and push his more palatable, moderate doctrine when the dust settles.

The Verdict

With more than a year until the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, nothing about the 2016 presidential race is guaranteed. Half of the ‘hopefuls’ I have discussed might not even be in Iowa come January, let alone stumping for delegates next June. For that reason, it is important to take the ‘election news’ of today with a grain of salt. But even as the GOP field flirts and fluctuates, the divide within the party will likely be a pivotal factor in deciding the next Republican presidential nominee. Perhaps conservative heads will prevail and the party will select one of the young guns to lead the charge. Who knows, maybe America’s moderate voice will triumph, leaving the governors with cross-party appeal as the only options. What is more likely, if not certain, is that Republicans will require a candidate who can please its most extreme (and vocal) factions and draw votes from the middle, all the while avoiding the rhetorical kisses of death of being a ‘flip-flopper’, ‘inexperienced’ and ‘not a strong leader’. When applying the aforementioned mold of career conservatism, moderate appeal and leadership pedigree, there remains only one viable conservative candidate: Jeb Bush.

 

Sources 1 http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/230693-house-gop-conservatives-form-new-freedom-caucus 2 http://www.politico.com/story/2013/07/hillary-clinton-marco-rubio-2016-election-93627.html 3 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/12/15/jeb-bush-did-really-well-with-latinos-in-florida-it-probably-doesnt-mean-much-for-2016/

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