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July 29, 2013 12:02 PM Too Many Factions For a War?

By Ed Kilgore

One of this morning’s most interesting reads is from the Washington Examiner’s Byron York, who is both a political reporter and a conservative opinion-leader. He takes a look at the current fights within the GOP over national security, Obamacare “defunding,” and immigration, and reaches an interesting conclusion:

The conflicts inside the GOP today just don’t line up in the configuration of a classic civil war. There are multiple issues involved, and the lawmakers on various sides of various issues don’t lean the same way on each issue. Republicans who are opponents on one issue are allies on another. Looking at the Senate, for example, it’s unlikely that there will be a total civil war between Senate Faction A and Senate Faction B when some members of the opposing factions are united in Faction C, or Faction D, or so on. In other words, it may be that the Republican Party is too divided to have a real civil war. Perhaps chaos would be a better description.

York’s examples of cross-cutting divisions is accurate, all right:

Perhaps the most striking thing about the immigration battle, in the context of the other intra-party conflicts now going on, is that the number of Republican senators who voted for the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill — 14 - is barely larger than the dozen who support Mike Lee’s defunding Obamacare plan. But they are a different group. And those groups don’t line up precisely with the sides in the national security debate. Tom Coburn and John McCain were on different sides of the immigration vote, but they are united against the defunding Obamacare initiative. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were also on opposing sides on immigration, but they are united in favor of defunding Obamacare. And Cruz, Rubio, and Lee joined Paul’s famous filibuster in which he mused about the possibility of U.S. government drone strikes against American cities — a filibuster Rubio’s immigration allies McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham bitterly opposed.

It’s tempting to say that much of the “chaos” York is talking about is a product of Marco Rubio’s flailing efforts to keep his once-rising star aloft; his “stand with Rand” during the drone filibuster isn’t necessarily a sign of solidarity with Paul the Younger’s national security policy inclinations, given the Floridian’s many deep ties to Neocons.

But I’d add another observation about the nature of the intra-party conflicts York treats as equally important: one is largely strategic in nature (immigration reform) while another is primarily tactical (the “defunding Obamacare” argument). It’s not entirely clear those battling over these issues really disagree in terms of underlying philosophy and policy, particularly on Obamacare, which nearly all Republicans bitterly oppose.

The foreign policy battles on the other hand, are pretty fundamental, though even there the strategic and tactical issues associated with Total Opposition to the Obama administration are a significant factor.

To the extent that Republicans are really arguing over how to advance a common hard-core conservative philosophy, there’s really no basis for a “civil war,” however much they wrangle over this or that piece of legislation or this or that messaging or outreach initiative. Yes, self-conscious “constitutional conservatives” are going to be perpetually more resistant to compromises of policy positions they consider eternally non-negotiable. But it’s premature to suggest the GOP and the conservative movement that dominates it is in danger of falling apart.


Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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