How does today’s Republican Party fit Wall Street bankers under the same tent as blue-collar America? How does a party unify those who seek to bathe corporations in taxpayer cash with those who want to curtail government spending?
If recent events in Congress are any indication, increasingly it doesn’t.
On various issues, rank-and-file Republican lawmakers are bucking their party, with fault lines dividing corporate apologists from ideological purists and its working-class constituency. The gap is widening as the party’s leadership in Washington becomes increasingly divorced from the concerns of average voters. And the split is forging an unlikely alliance between progressives and right-wing ideologues. In the process, the public is getting a glimpse of a Republican Party at war with itself.
On government spending, for instance, more and more conservatives have raised objections to corporate welfare and the burgeoning deficit. In the House last year, a vote to cut off government handouts to corporations that ship jobs overseas attracted 22 Republican yes votes. Similarly, criticism of the Bush budget was amplified by the archconservative Republican Study Committee, whose noted member Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) said Congress deserved answers about a budget that “borrows hundreds of billions of dollars from our children and grandchildren.”
It was fiscal conservatives who joined Democrats to almost defeat the Medicare bill. With the president pushing for the massive HMO giveaway, the anti-entitlement right wing refused to play ball. When the bill was voted on, an NBC News correspondent reported watching “an invincible House GOP leadership now frantically trying to avoid a devastating defeat, having hit a brick wall of conservatives in their own party who are openly defying their pleas.” The bill passed by just five votes.
Granted, the right and the left have different objectives. The right-wing purists want to cut all government spending; the left wants to eliminate unfair tax cuts and corporate giveaways. But beyond these “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” alliances are other areas where the right is working with progressives toward the same goals.
Free-market conservatives and progressives are pushing legislation allowing seniors to purchase FDA-approved medicine from other countries. Both sides want lower prices. Sen. Trent Lott (yes, that Trent Lott) said, “I cannot explain to my mother any longer why she should pay twice or two-thirds more than what is paid in Canada or Mexico.” Republican governors have even challenged the Bush administration to allow their states to move forward with reimportation. But the Republican establishment refuses to defy its campaign donors in the pharmaceutical industry.
Job losses in the manufacturing sector have activated the consciences of conservatives like Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), who chairs the House Small Business Committee. In a 2002 op-ed, Manzullo wrote: “Too many times we have voted for trade only to learn that corporations moved more of their operations or sourcing out of our districts and offshore, leaving behind hard-working Americans with families to feed and no jobs. Those people back in our districts sent us to Congress to represent their interests.” The White House, wary of such GOP sentiments, announced last month that the Central American Free Trade Agreement would not be put to a vote until after the election.
Bucking the Republican Party establishment can even play to the conservative grassroots constituency. When the Bush FCC loosened media ownership rules, 12 Republican senators joined Democrats to pass a bill rejecting the decision. While progressives were backed by groups like MoveOn and Common Cause, conservatives were supported by the National Rifle Association and the Family Research Council. Their only roadblock was the House Republican leadership and a presidential veto threat.
Rural Republicans like Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho) sponsored bills with progressives to repeal parts of the USA Patriot Act.
And now some conservative lawmakers are invoking their political ideology to articulate positions against the war in Iraq. Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) gave a speech saying, “The true conservative position, the traditional conservative position is against this war.” He pointed out, “It is very much against every conservative tradition to support preemptive war.”
If fissures like these keep growing in the GOP, the Republican National Committee will just wheel out more hot-button social issues. It’s no surprise that Bush’s first public event of the 2004 campaign season was the introduction of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
But this strategy will fail. While social issues can raise passions, the Republican Party revolt is fueled by ideology and grassroots outrage. Every time lawmakers go home to their districts, they hear it from constituents.
And the more their party ignores this outrage, the bigger the price they will pay in November.