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August 06, 2014 11:08 AM Battles and Wars in the GOP

By Ed Kilgore

I did a sort of internal summary column for TPMCafe last night evaluating the 2014 GOP Senate primary cycle and suggesting that the string of “Establishment” victories over Tea Partyish challengers disguised the most important development, a continued rightward drift under activist “base” pressure.

Probably because I used the language of “war” to describe the dynamics, I understandably got some light Twitter grief for suggesting a sharp divide within the GOP. That’s not what I was trying to convey. I’ve been pretty outspoken for years now in arguing that aside from foreign policy, the main “battles” within the Republican Party have been over strategy and tactics, not policy or ideology. Now strategy and tactics do matter, as last year’s government shutdown and the incessant obstructionism that is the congressional GOP’s default position demonstrate. But the main function of the Tea Party Movement has been to intensify and defend a rightward movement in the Republican Party that’s been underway for decades but has gained hellish momentum since the 2008 elections, regularly overwhelming the efforts of GOP elites to instill some “pragmatic” caution. In that sense, the Tea Folk are winning “the war” even if they lose a number of primary “battles.”

If you look at the rhetoric and positioning of many of the “Establishment” winners in this year’s Senate primaries, it’s like the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest all over again. There’s remarkable near-unanimity in favor of hard-core positions on fiscal matters, the economy, cultural issues, and immigration—and above all a violent resistance to the idea that government can play a positive role in national life other than at the Pentagon. “Pragmatic outsider” David Perdue of GA won his runoff in no small part by going Medieval on “amnesty,” just like Mitt Romney did during the 2012 primaries. “Establishment” icon Thom Tillis of North Carolina won his primary by branding himself as leader of a “conservative revolution” in his state (much as Romney called himself “severely conservative”), and identifying with “base activist” hostility to the poor and minorities (much as Romney went over the brink with his “47%” comments). Joni Ernst of Iowa, initially vulnerable in her primary for having supported a gas tax increase in the legislature, cozied up to every conservative activist in sight, indulged in harsh Obama-bashing, and endorsed a “personhood” amendment.

This rightward movement of the GOP remains the most important political phenomenon of our time, and despite all the “rebranding” talk after the 2012 presidential defeat, it’s still happening. So whereas no one should exaggerate the differences of opinion among Republicans at present, the rightward pressure based on real and threatened primary challenges is an important factor.

Having said all that, I do worry that the still-emerging ideology of “constitutional conservatism” is something new and dangerous, at least in its growing respectability. It’s always been there in the background, among the Birchers and in the Christian Right, and as as emotional and intellectual force within Movement Conservatism. It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of “traditional culture” is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t—all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or “foreign” delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America. I don’t think at this point “constitutional conservatism” has taken over the GOP, but its rhetoric and the confrontational—even chiliastic—strategy and tactics it suggests are becoming more common every day, even among hackish pols who probably don’t think deeply about anything and would sell out the “base” in a heartbeat if they could get away with it. Some of the moneyed interests bankrolling the GOP and the conservative movement probably just view all the God and Founders talk as a shiny bauble with which to fool the rubes, but others—notably the Kochs—seem to have embraced it as a vehicle for permanent domination of American politics. This is the real “struggle for the soul of the GOP” that’s worth watching, far more than the tempests in a Tea Party Pot in this or that primary.

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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