WASHINGTON — After a long and difficult winter in Washington, the winds of change are blowing through the Capital, and the end result could spell trouble for Democrats in November. Republican Party leaders seem to be guiding the party in a new direction after they got most of the blame for last October’s unpopular shutdown of the federal government.
In recent weeks Republican congressional leaders have somewhat neutralized Tea Party factions in both the House of Representatives and the Senate who in the past have demanded a ‘scorched earth’ approach on budget and spending issues that often led to confrontation and stalemate. That in turn caused approval numbers for the Republican Party to plummet in national opinion polls. To counter this, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell engineered clean passage of a debt ceiling extension in both the House and Senate that effectively bypassed conservative factions who in the past demanded spending cuts before they would agree to raising the debt ceiling.
It’s the latest example of how Boehner and McConnell are being more aggressive in beating back Tea Party interference. McConnell even cast what could turn out for him to be a troubling Senate vote to end debate on the debt ceiling when Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a likely Republican presidential contender two years from now, tried to block the measure. McConnell faces a Tea Party-backed challenger in his primary this year in Kentucky and well-funded conservative groups around the country are looking for any excuse to pour money into that Kentucky race in hopes of replacing McConnell with a more conservative Republican.
Eyes on November
This more pragmatic Republican approach means steering clear of polarizing battles over the debt ceiling and endless legislative attempts to repeal Obamacare. It’s also seen as a rebuke to the well-funded outside conservative groups who pressure Republicans in Congress to be more confrontational. These groups have made Boehner’s job trying to lead House Republicans extremely complicated.
“Frankly I think they are misleading their followers. I think they are pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly I just think that they have lost all credibility”, Boehner told reporters recently.
The Republican reset away from confrontation will allow the party to refocus on jobs, energy and education and keep their political salvos aimed directly at President Obama, especially the president’s health care law, which remains very unpopular in Republican congressional districts and Republican-leaning states.
But this new Republican reset will go only so far to please moderates. One victim appears to be immigration reform. House conservatives pushed back hard against Speaker Boehner when he raised the prospect of moving ahead on reform this year, and for the moment it remains stuck in the House. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill last year offering a path to eventual citizenship for millions of people who entered the country illegally. But many conservatives oppose offering a path to citizenship because they fear being attacked in primaries as supporting amnesty for illegals, a non-starter in so-called Red Republican states and districts.
As Republican Congressman Peter King of New York told CBS’ Face the Nation, “I think nationwide it is something the Republican Party should do. But when you take it district by district, it’s hard to get a majority of Republicans to sign on to it.”
Democrats will try to exploit the Republican reluctance to move ahead on immigration reform, but they have bigger problems in trying to keep Senate seats in seven states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. Republicans are favored to keep or expand their 17-seat majority in the House and need a gain of six seats to take control of the Senate. And if President Obama’s poor approval ratings remain mired under 50 percent, Democrats will have a tall order trying to save incumbent Democratic senators in southern states like Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina where Republican candidates are eager to run on a platform of dismantling Obamacare.
The 2016 Factor
Republicans may have some success this year in tamping down the Tea Party loyalists and implementing a mid-course correction that should make the party more palatable to independent voters this November. But how long will this last? Once the 2014 election returns are in, the race for the White House in 2016 basically begins and any number of young and hungry Republicans will move aggressively to enter the race. Tea Party supporters should have plenty of favorites to choose from in the 2016 primaries. Texas Senator Cruz, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio are all considered likely contenders who will compete for Tea Party support.
But as we saw in the primaries in 2012, a large Republican field well populated by conservatives tends to pull the party to the right, something that hurt Mitt Romney in his general election matchup with President Obama.
As American University political historian Allan Lichtman sees it, “The war within the Republican Party still rages. There are even some on the far right who have taken some joy in the difficulties of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie because he was kind of the great hope of the moderates.”
So all the work the Republican Party does this year to position itself as more attractive to moderate and independent voters could easily come undone in the shrill debates and raucous primary battles that will take place two years from now.