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Republican rift

Michael KniggeOctober 23, 2015

The Republican Party has been busy recently trying to undo itself. Paul Ryan, their last hope in Congress, will have a hard time fixing that. Why should you care? Because the GOP controls Congress and most US states.

USA Paul Ryan Abgeordneter
Image: Reuters/J. Roberts

On the evening of July 28 the Republican Party in the House of Representatives began to unravel. That Tuesday evening, Mark Meadows, a largely unknown freshman lawmaker from North Carolina, filed a historic motion to oust House Speaker John Boehner.

A similar attempt had been made only once - more than 100 years ago - since the House first assembled in 1789. It failed. Meadows attempt, made after Boehner punished him for voting against House leadership, initially also floundered.

But two months later an exhausted John Boehner announced that he would resign as House Speaker at the end of October. Boehner had ultimately been worn out in an attrition battle with a small group of ultraconservatives banded together in the so called Freedom Caucus.

John Boehner
Boehner lost the fight against the Freedom CaucusImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Backbencher revolution

It consists of some 40 backbenchers who oppose any compromise with President Barack Obama and the Democrats. While these Tea Party-aligned lawmakers disdain Obama, they probably loathe the Republican Party's establishment which they accuse of betraying conservative values by compromising with Obama even more. And they are perfectly willing to do just about anything to get their way and block the Obama administration - even if it means letting the US government default or shut down.

This has lead to the curious situation that 40 determined ultraconservatives have been blackmailing the other roughly 200 House Republicans to get their way or risk not having the majority to advance any legislation.

"We are seeing real extremists now – the Freedom Caucus people – that have gone after Republican congressional leaders who try to tell them that it wasn't possible to just get rid of health care reform or stop everything Obama wants to do," said Theda Skocpol, author of "The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism" and a professor of government and sociology of American politics at Harvard University.

Establishment under fire

But it isn't just the GOP in the House of Representatives that is in turmoil. Even in the Senate, the smaller and generally less rambunctious chamber, Republican leadership has come under attack from Tea Party firebrands. Ted Cruz, the Texas Senator and presidential candidate, has repeatedly called Mitch McConnell, his party leader in the Senate, a liar and together with fellow Tea Party colleague Mike Lee waged an intra-party battle to be more aggressive in trying to kill Obama's health care reform.

Jim Jordan
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan leads the hardline Freedom CaucusImage: Reuters/J. Ernst

And the Republican Party's presidential nomination race is also dominated not by mainstream conservatives, but by billionaire business mogul Donald Trump and by neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Both have never held elected office and have comparatively weak ties to the party. Carson only rejoined the GOP less than a year ago.

The GOP's establishment favorite Jeb Bush meanwhile is having a hard time dealing with the populist fervor stirred up by Trump and Carson. As a result of right-wing pressure Bush even buried one of his central issues, immigration reform, and instead began to echo Trump's shrill rhetoric. It has not helped him. Bush is lagging in the polls behind Tea Party darlings Trump and Carson.

GOP coming apart

"Clearly this is unprecedented," said John Kenneth White referring to the strife within the Republican Party. White is a political science professor at the Catholic University of America and recently published a book about the state of the GOP called "What happened to the Republican Party?"

The closest thing to the current turmoil, noted White, was the nomination of archconservative Senator Barry Goldwater as presidential candidate back in 1964 when the establishment also failed to have a convincing candidate. Goldwater lost that election by a landslide.

"The coming apart of the Republican Party certainly in presidential politics, but also in the Congress is absolutely quite evident," said White. "This has happened in some other countries as well and I think people should care."

Since the US, unlike many other countries, has only two major parties, key developments in either party are particularly noteworthy because there are few political alternatives.

To make things worse for the GOP, it is not just the Tea Party-inspired nativists that are trying to take control of the Republican Party.

Koch brothers

"There is another big force out there," said Skocpol referring to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and their vast political network. The Kochs operate a lot more quietly, but at least as effectively and with their financial prowess have steadily increased their sway in the party.

"They are not necessarily interested in ousting people or catering to the most intense passion of Tea Party voters," said Skocpol. "They are interested in a long-term strategy to reduce the role of government in American society. Paul Ryan is their guy."

USA Jim Jordan Befragung durch Untersuchungsausschuss Hillary Clinton Bengasi
David Koch and his brother are key conservative donorsImage: Getty Images

Ryan, the current chairman of the powerful House budget committee, has been reluctant to take over the helm of the House GOP, but has now been forced to run as the party's last hope.

No easy way out

Ryan's reluctance was well founded, argues Skocpol, because if elected he soon will find the party as impossible to lead as his predecessor did. Just because Ryan is speaker, she said, will not make the “refuseniks” any more prone to vote for what they view as a compromise with Obama.

Asked to sketch a possible way out of this malaise for the Republican Party, both scholars are at a loss.

"The chickens have come home to roost in a lot of different ways," said White.

"It's a mess," offered Skocpol. "But it's a mess that is in control of the US Congress and most of the state governments in the United States."