Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Three GOPs? No. Just One Opposition Party

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.

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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.

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GOP Identity: It’s Not Just 2016 Contenders

There has been, and will continue to be, buzz around certain young conservative politicians who are expected to be in consideration for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. These young stars, such as Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and others, have their every statement and every vote examined for its relevance to the 2016 nomination battle.

One reason for this is that the GOP seems to have finally shed its allegiance to next-in-linism, the practice of nominating last cycle’s runner-up or someone with the right pedigree, or even someone viewed as having paid his dues. The party that does not hold the White House is usually in search of an identity. But this is even more the case with regard to the current Republican Party, which has no obvious nominee waiting in the wings, and as such, no obvious leader. But the party’s identity going forward is going to be shaped as much by up-and-coming politicians who aren’t vying for the 2016 nomination as those who are.

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There has been, and will continue to be, buzz around certain young conservative politicians who are expected to be in consideration for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. These young stars, such as Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and others, have their every statement and every vote examined for its relevance to the 2016 nomination battle.

One reason for this is that the GOP seems to have finally shed its allegiance to next-in-linism, the practice of nominating last cycle’s runner-up or someone with the right pedigree, or even someone viewed as having paid his dues. The party that does not hold the White House is usually in search of an identity. But this is even more the case with regard to the current Republican Party, which has no obvious nominee waiting in the wings, and as such, no obvious leader. But the party’s identity going forward is going to be shaped as much by up-and-coming politicians who aren’t vying for the 2016 nomination as those who are.

Last week, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed as his two “counsels” Senators Kelly Ayotte and Bob Corker. New Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been a conservative favorite from the moment he declared his Senate candidacy, and is garnering profiles from publications left and right. And today Mike Allen’s Politico “Playbook” carries part of his interview with Washington State Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who had a prominent place at the GOP’s convention in the fall and who has now become the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House.

Aside from the fiscal conservative nature of today’s congressional GOP, this group gives us a few hints as to the identity of the party post-2012.

1. The Republican Party is not a “regional” party, as so many on the left would have us believe. McMorris Rodgers represents a northwestern state; Cruz is from Texas, at this point virtually its own region of the country; Corker is from Tennessee; Ayotte is from New Hampshire. When you combine this with the classic GOP strongholds in the Midwest and Republican statehouse success in places like Michigan–not to mention the unignorable Chris Christie in New Jersey–and young officeholders like Susana Martinez in New Mexico, you have a national party, full stop.

2. The GOP’s lack of clarity and focus on foreign policy is likely to be (very) temporary. As the Washington Post story on Ayotte and Corker notes:

Ayotte has also struck up a friendship with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who along with former senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) were often dubbed the “three amigos” for their frequent globe-trotting and general agreement on foreign policy. With Lieberman’s departure, he deemed Ayotte as his capable — and more attractive — successor in the trio.

Leaving aside the comment on Ayotte’s looks, Lieberman’s approval of Ayotte on foreign policy is significant, and she could scarcely have chosen a better mentor.

Corker, meanwhile, is now the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (John McCain is joining the committee, but has said he won’t challenge Corker for leadership.)

McMorris Rodgers, in her interview with Allen, alluded to the issue of immigration, perhaps the issue on which the younger generation of conservative politicians is most clearly separating itself from party elders. (Though it should be noted that McCain and Lindsey Graham are both notably pro-immigration.) Immigration is no longer simply about domestic policy. In a globalized world, understanding cultures abroad is increasingly essential to domestic politics, and it’s encouraging that the GOP seems to finally recognize this.

3. Republicans love to tease the left that the Tea Party is far more diverse than, say, the snow-white Occupy movement or Barack Obama’s cabinet, but aside from the political point-scoring the GOP’s diversity is a significant step forward for the party. As John Steele Gordon wrote last month, the trajectory of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott’s career, which included defeating Strom Thurmond’s son for his House seat and now serving in the Senate delegation in which Strom Thurmond once served, to become the Senate’s only African-American of either party, is quite a story. This, combined with Barack Obama’s reelection, will hopefully inspire the Democratic Party to free itself from its poisonous obsession with racial division. This would be good for the country, but it would also be good for the Democrats.

Cruz is the one member of this group that is a wild card, since there is already buzz about him as a possible 2016 contender. But he seems more likely to stay in the Senate to build a record and a following, for now. Questions about his eligibility would be raised–he was born in Canada to an American mother–but he is almost certainly constitutionally eligible to hold the office. Looking at the 2016 contenders is only one way to gauge the direction of the party. By the time that election rolls around, the next generation of congressional leaders may have already taken the baton.

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