Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s startling decision to pull out of the race for speaker of the House of Representatives was the latest vivid illustration of how today’s Republican Party is bitterly divided between hardcore conservatives and pragmatists.
And there’s little hope of healing anytime soon.
The Republican civil war has been escalating for years, particularly since the dawn of the tea party movement six years ago.
It’s intensified this summer and fall, thanks to a presidential race featuring three Washington outsiders leading most Republican polls. It’s obvious daily at the Capitol, where Republicans may control both chambers, but they struggle to get much done as they bicker among themselves.
McCarthy, the House majority leader, was the clear favorite to succeed Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who plans to step down at the end of the month. But the California congressman was hardly a consensus choice.
Wednesday night, the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 hardcore conservatives, endorsed long-shot Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., for the speaker’s job. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, mounted his own insurgent challenge.
As House Republicans emerged from their caucus Thursday after hearing McCarthy’s decision, they were stunned, surly and in some cases, sad, seeing no end to the turmoil that’s rocked their party.
The battles are being fought on two fronts. Republicans are bitterly divided over tactics, with one side demanding brinkmanship on certain issues, even if it means shutting down the government. The other side wants to be more accommodating, content with getting 80 percent of what they want.
Thursday, the rebels were ascendant. “People are so angry, so distrustful. We’ve got to do something different than what we’ve been doing around here for 30, 40, 50 years,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
The other battle is over what issues to spotlight. Hardcore conservatives want more attention to tougher immigration restrictions, defunding Planned Parenthood and other social issues. The pragmatists regard themselves as realists who don’t see a path to getting enough votes to enact such measures into law. And the Republican National Committee has tried hard in recent years to project an image of tolerance and inclusion.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., like Boehner the object of conservative scorn, made it clear that ending Planned Parenthood’s federal money would go nowhere.
“The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood,” McConnell told a Kentucky broadcast recently. “So that’s another issue that awaits a new president, hopefully with a different point of view about Planned Parenthood.”
That kind of attitude only stiffened the Republican rebels, who firmly believe they’ve earned a mandate to take tough stands. The grassroots tea party movement was instrumental in winning Republican control of the House in 2010, and last year the mission got a new victory when Republicans took control of the Senate.
Yet to the all-or-nothing faction, little has changed.
“We keep winning elections and then we keep getting leaders who don’t do anything they promised,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Until now, perhaps. The hardcore conservatives and the Washington outsiders were ecstatic over McCarthy’s fall.
“Great, Kevin McCarthy drops out of speaker race,” tweeted Republican front-runner Donald Trump. “We need a really smart and really tough person to take over this very important job!”
The insurgents felt new energy for their march on other issues, issues sure to become campaign trail flashpoints.
“We’re representing our constituents. The struggle here is many of us feel we have not been empowered the way the Constitution allows us,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La.
They want to end the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that provides loans and other services to help boost American exports. To many conservatives, it’s a bastion of government-funded corporate welfare.
They want tougher laws restricting, and in many cases deporting, immigrants in the country illegally.
Most of all, they want to keep the investigation of the 2012 Benghazi attacks going. Four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, died in the attack. Though a House Intelligence Committee report said intelligence agencies, the military and Obama administration officials acted correctly, conservatives insisted on a special committee.
Question the motives behind that committee, McCarthy learned, and the hard right will be unforgiving. Last week, he noted that since the committee’s creation last year, poll numbers for former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have dropped.
That’s all McCarthy’s critics needed. “That was a bad, bad mistake,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. “I didn’t vote for the Benghazi committee for politics. I did it to find out the truth. The way he did it saying it was political offended all of us.”
Nowadays, one is very careful about offending Republicans who feel that way.