Whither the GOP?

The Washington Post's Dan Balz, whose commentary I usually find stodgy, posted a piece on August 3 titled "Which direction for the divided GOP?." Echoing analyses that have been widely heard since last year's election, Balz'z piece is subtitled "Splits likely to persist."

Balz cites a recent Pew Research poll that asked Republicans about their party. The poll found little agreement, other than that the party must address major problems if it is to do better in future presidential elections. But 54 percent thought that meant taking a more conservative direction, while 40 percent wanted moderation. There was even less agreement on tactics, with about one third saying congressional Republicans had compromised too much, one third saying the tactics were about right, and one quarter calling for greater compromise with Democrats.

The poll also highlighted the disproportionate influence of the so-called "tea party." Party-wide, more people disagree with the "tea party," of have no particular opinion of them. But Republicans who always vote in primaries are evenly divided between "tea party" supporters and detractors.

Many more non-tea-party Republicans think the party needs to reconsider some of its positions than do tea-party Republicans. Similarly, more that 2/3 of tea-partiers want party policies to be more conservative, while only 2/5 of non-tea-partiers do.

This, Balz notes, means that, as in the past

... [P]rospective 2016 candidates will have to appeal to a base that wants more confrontation, less compromise and even more conservative policies in the primary and then turn around and compete in a general election for the votes of people who currently see the party as out of touch or too extreme in some of its policies.

Earlier in the week, Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler posted "GOP’s Long-Predicted Comeuppance Has Arrived," on the occasion of the House Republican leadership pulling a bill to fund the Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

"It might look like a minor hiccup, or a symbolic error," Beutler writes, "But it spells doom for the party’s near-term budget strategy and underscores just how bogus the party’s broader agenda really is and has been for the last four years."

Normally, Beutler reminds us, the House and Senate would each pass a budget, and then a "conference committee," with members from both bodies, would negotiate a compromise. Recently, however, Republicans have refused to negotiate differences, and with have directed appropriation committee members to use their current budget as a basis for government funding after September.

Like all recent GOP budgets, this year’s proposes lots of spending on defense and security, at the expense of all other programs. Specifically, it sets the total pool of discretionary dollars at sequestration levels, then funnels money from thinly stretched domestic departments (like Transportation and HUD) to the Pentagon and a few other agencies. But that’s all the budget says. It doesn’t say how to allocate the dollars, nor does it grapple in any way with the possibility that cutting domestic spending so profoundly might be unworkable. It’s an abstraction.

Beutler notes that Paul Ryan's reputation as a budget maven is based almost completely on these sorts of abstractions. Moreover, as demonstrated by House leadership withdrawing the DOT funding bill, when it comes time to define specific spending cuts, Republicans "chicken out" -- as predicted by many political analysts.

It turns out that when you draft bills enumerating all the specific cuts required to comply with the budget’s parameters, they don’t come anywhere close to having enough political support to pass. Even in the GOP House. Slash community development block grants by 50 percent, and you don’t just lose the Democrats, you lose a lot of Republicans who care about their districts.

Beutler concludes that this episode demonstrates that House Republicans are incapable of establishing a budget position of their own, with the result that he expects the Senate to drive the budget process in the fall. Moreover, he suggests, it shows the lack of political viability of the whole Republican approach to the budget process, shows their inability to execute key elements of their own agenda, and calls into question their ability to govern at all.

Writing in New York Magazine earlier this month, Jonathan Chait suggested the radical right of the Republican party isn't really interested in governing at all.

The Republican fringe has evolved from being politically shrewd proponents of radical policy changes to a gang of saboteurs who would rather stop government from functioning at all. ... [T]he terms we traditionally use to scold bad Congresses—partisanship, obstruction, gridlock—don’t come close to describing this situation. The hard right’s extremism has bent back upon itself, leaving an inscrutable void of paranoia and formless rage and twisting the Republican Party into a band of anarchists.