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Political Divide a Threat to Republican Hopes

Boehner's Departure Reveals Deep Republican Divide
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Boehner's Departure Reveals Deep Republican Divide

The deep divisions within the Republican Party are on full display in the wake of House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement last week that he will resign at the end of October. Couple Boehner’s impending departure with the rise of political outsiders in the Republican presidential race and it’s clear that the divide between establishment Republicans and grassroots conservatives is very much alive and could become a distraction for the party as it approaches the 2016 presidential election.

Boehner, whose replacement will be elected by House members on Oct. 8, decided to step down after years of battling not only Democrats but conservatives within his own House Republican Conference. He also made a fresh plea that both sides be open to compromise. “If the Congress stays focused on the American people’s priorities, there will be no problem at all. And while we have differences between Democrats and Republicans, the goal here is, as one of the leaders, is to find the common ground.”

Boehner was more directly critical of conservative activists in the House in an appearance on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” He warned of “false prophets” in his party making unrealistic promises to conservatives determined to stop President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Presidential outsiders on the rise

The split between grassroots conservatives and establishment Republicans is also evident in the presidential race with the rise of non-politician outsiders like Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump. Trump addressed the issue when he announced details of his tax reform proposal this week in New York. “And you know, people ask, how come Trump is doing so well, and [Ben] Carson and others? How come they are doing [so well]? You know why they are doing well? Because people are tired of political speak. They are tired of that.”

Some of the other Republican presidential contenders are fanning the anger toward the Republican establishment including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The governor lashed out during the September 16 “undercard debate” among lesser challengers in California.

“It is time to get rid of the Republican Party and start over with a new one that is at least conservative. Give [Democrats] Harry Reid and [Nancy] Pelosi credit, at least they fight for what they believe in. I want senators and House members in D.C. to fight for what we believe in as well. It is time to have Republicans with a backbone in D.C.," said Jindal.

Republican voters responding

There is little doubt that conservative impatience and anger with the status quo are driving the presidential race, said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Basically, it says that a lot of Republicans feel that Republican leadership in Washington has basically not done enough to push back President Obama’s agenda. And we are not only seeing this in Washington, but we are also seeing the same effect on the presidential campaign trail and that is why we are seeing the outsiders rise.”

President Obama called Speaker Boehner “a good man” and “a patriot” in the wake of the Speaker's departure announcement. He also paid tribute to Boehner as someone who often sought compromise. “In government, in governance, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want, but you have to work with people who you disagree with, sometimes strongly, in order to do the people’s business.”

Party divide remains

Boehner’s departure is not likely to change the dynamics in Congress where conservatives often push Republican leaders to be more aggressive in opposing President Obama and his Democratic allies.

“Right now those dominant, anti-establishment radical forces inside Congress, the presidential candidates who are appealing to them and the larger group out there in the electorate, are demanding shutdowns and actions that will bring Obama to his knees,” said political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Some experts, however, are concerned that the party split could hurt Republicans in next year’s election. “There is a divide,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “There is an outsider caucus and one that for Republicans to win, they will have to put that caucus or coalition back together.”

Boehner’s departure may have averted a government shutdown for now, but analysts said the strains between establishment Republicans and conservative activists will continue indefinitely.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.