It doesn’t matter how uninspired President Obama’s State of the Union speech turned out to be. The contrast between the pomp and circumstance of what is accorded the American equivalent of Queen Elizabeth’s annual visit to Westminster to open Parliament makes any opposition responses seem pale by comparison. If the official response by Washington state’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wasn’t a flop like most of her predecessors, nor did it offer an in-depth refutation of the president, or anything more than a thumbnail sketch of what it is the GOP believes. The fact that the Republicans have in recent years produced more than one response, with the Tea Party offering up one last night by Senator Mike Lee separate from that of the traditional GOP, with Senator Rand Paul deciding to speak too, only serves to reinforce the impression of a Republican Party that is both divided and incoherent.
This feeds into the mainstream media narrative that the Republicans’ problems in the wake of their 2012 defeat as well as the beating they took (and largely deserved) for shutting down the government last fall. As New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal wrote in a humorous putdown of the GOP, the three parties represented last night could be labeled the “Stepford party” (a sexist reference to McMorris Rodgers speaking for the GOP establishment), “the storm the castle party” (Mike Lee speaking for the Tea Party), and “the non-threatening insurgent party” (Rand Paul speaking on behalf of the Rand Paul party). Rosenthal even took the opportunity to pile on by taking a cheap shot at Republicans by terming the ugly threat made to a reporter last night by New York’s Rep. Michael Grimm as the “class clown response” to the president.
But the idea that the GOP is hopelessly divided and would be unable to govern even if they were given the chance is a misreading of the situation or, as in the case of the liberal ideologue Rosenthal, mere partisan hyperventilating. What we saw last night was not a contrast between a united party and one rent by schisms. Rather, it was an illustration of the difference between being in power and not being in power.
The problem here isn’t that Republicans are particularly querulous—though there’s no denying the divisions in the party—or inept at messaging. Rather the schisms we observe on the right are the natural product of lacking one unifying figure.
The contrast between Tea Party conservatives and the more mainstream conservatives in congressional leadership positions is only in part ideological. There are issues on which the two seem to part ways on matters of principle—immigration being one example. But for the most part, the establishment and the castle-burners don’t seriously disagree on basic issues. Indeed, on most fiscal and social issues there are few strong disagreements. The schisms stem not from any genuine disagreement about dislike of big-government measures, taxes, and spending but on the tactics best suited to combat the Democrats. The establishment rightly wishes to govern and to pick its fights with the liberals to lay the groundwork for future electoral victories. The castle-burners are frustrated by past defeats and want to lash out at the system. Indeed, it was just such despair about the GOP struggle against ObamaCare—an issue on which there is a remarkable consensus, if not unanimity among Republicans—that led to the government shutdown.
As was the case last night, the Republicans were unable to speak with one voice during the shutdown while Democrats were able to rally around the White House. The result, as with the State of the Union, is that a congressional Republican Party that actually has as little divergence of views on a host of important issues as their Democratic opponents comes across as a band of savages tearing one another to pieces.
The remedy for this is simple. Win a presidential election. Once in opposition, the Democratic Party, whose divisions are today papered over by their deference to the president, will seem as angry and divided as the GOP does today. Its leaders will—as the Republicans do now—ruthlessly maneuver in order to put themselves in the strongest position for the next presidential election. Republicans will be forced, as Democrats are today, to bow to their president’s wishes and to play defense for an administration whose popularity will largely determine their own fates at the next midterm election.
Of course to get back to that position, Republicans will have to deal with the fallout from the shutdown and the misrepresentation, pounded home by the liberal media, that the GOP is aloof from the concerns of women and Hispanic voters. But, as Democrats learned in 2008, one good presidential candidate can make up for a multitude of political faults. Though no one who fits that description was on display last night for the Republicans, those members of the GOP nursing their wounds from another dispiriting beating in the Republican response to the State of the Union should remember that all they have to do to change places with the Democrats is to find someone who can beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.