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October 22, 2013 12:46 PM Conservatives Agree: Republican Divisions Mainly Not About Ideology

By Ed Kilgore

Regular readers know that I’m not a subscriber to idea there’s a “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party” underway. I didn’t think so back during the short-lived “rebranding” debate after the 2012 elections, and I don’t think so now despite all the yelling and screaming over “defunding Obamacare.”

But if you don’t believe me, how’s about listening to a couple of influential voices from the land of hard-core conservatives, where there’s every incentive to accuse other Republicans of ideological heresy?

As it happens, there are two pieces up today that mock the idea there’s some “moderate Republican” ideological tendency that is grimly hanging on to power. First, here’s National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who wants to convince Tea Folk there are no ideological heretics left to purge:

Pick any three defining issues of conservatism — say, smaller government, low taxes, and opposition to abortion, or a strong national defense, entitlement reform, and gun rights — and you’ll be hard-pressed to find the supposedly liberal Republican “establishment” on one side and the tea-party faithful on the other.
Even on the policies that are splitting Republicans these days — say, foreign policy or immigration — the rift does not neatly divide the establishment and the “real conservatives.”
Such a statement will no doubt infuriate many conservatives who believe that the establishment is insufficiently committed to conservative principles. And that is an entirely fair complaint. But that criticism is about efficacy and passion, not policy or philosophy. And this is a hugely important distinction that has been deliberately airbrushed out of the picture painted by groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks. The inconvenient truth for these groups is that the current GOP establishment is more conservative than it has ever been.
In the recent internecine conservative donnybrook over the government shutdown, the insurgents insisted they were in an ideological struggle with the establishment. But there was precious little ideology involved. Instead, it was a fight over tactics and power. The Republican party almost unanimously opposed Obamacare, and the Republicans who’ve been in office far longer than Cruz & Co. have voted more than three dozen times to get rid of the disastrous program. And yet, the latecomers to the battle talk as if the veterans in the trenches were collaborators the whole time.
I have enormous sympathy for their frustration, because I share it.

More interesting is that the same point of view is shared by Erick Erickson, who is at the beating heart of “defund Obamacare” and “purge the RINOs” rage-a-palooza:

Long after we are dead, pundits and political reporters will still talk about the Rockefeller Republicans vs. the Conservatives and other such archaic divisions that no longer exist except in the rhetorical habits of pretentious political reporters. The real division within the Republican Party now isn’t even between those who call themselves tea partiers fighting the establishment. “Tea party”, like “conservative” and “Republican”, has less meaning these days and I increasingly dislike using the word. Admittedly though, everyone would consider me one based on the general parameters of what the tea party is.
In any event, the real fight within the Republican Party now is between those who believe we actually are at the moment of crisis — existential or otherwise — and thereby must fight as we’ve never fought before and those who think the GOP can bide its time and make things right.

In other words, the rift is about “strategy and tactics,” not ideology, philosophy, goals or even long-term agenda.

Now Erickson thinks the strategic and tactical differences are worth having a bit of a Republican civil war to resolve. But he, like Goldberg, doesn’t think there’s a significant difference in the kind of society different Republican envision.

It’s very important journalists keep this in mind when listening to the next war of words within the GOP.

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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