Instead of a divorce, the GOP needs primary reform

October 18, 2013

A few days ago, an older and wiser friend of mine and I had a lengthy conversation about divorce, that most cheerful of subjects. He noted that one of the surest signs of a marriage in trouble was that both parties were convinced that they had been forgiving of various betrayals and accommodating of various foibles, yet this generosity hadn’t been reciprocated. Naturally, this brought to mind the increasingly strained relationship between Tea Party conservatives and Republican regulars. What better way to describe how Ted Cruz must feel about John Boehner, the sellout, and how John Boehner must feel about Ted Cruz, the zealot?

Molly Ball of the Atlantic recounts the quasi-mutinous musings of various conservative luminaries, like Glenn Beck of TheBlaze, Erick Erickson of, and Sean Hannity of Fox News, among others. As recently as 2010, the notion that the Tea Party movement would bolt from the GOP to establish a party of its own would have seemed absurd. But now, in the wake of a fiscal showdown that’s proven to be an utter fiasco for congressional Republicans, the idea of a bona fide divorce is gaining credence. Among the Tea Party faithful, there is a widespread conviction that the effort to defund Obamacare would have proven successful had Speaker Boehner and his anxious allies been tougher, and more willing to risk breaching the debt ceiling. Republican regulars, meanwhile, are largely convinced that the defund Obamacare effort was a hopeless indulgence that exacted a real political cost. At least one critic of the Tea Party movement, David Frum of the Daily Beast and CNN, has argued that Republicans would benefit if “the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles” were to bolt.

This isn’t the first time libertarian-minded conservatives have contemplated a formal exit from the GOP. In the 1970s, William A. Rusher, the publisher of National Review and a staunch, Rockefeller-hating Goldwaterite, frequently made the case for a new conservative party, which he hoped would be led by Ronald Reagan. After Reagan’s narrow defeat in the 1976 contest for the Republican presidential nomination, however, the former California governor stood by his moderate rival Gerald Ford, and in doing so he dashed the hopes of Rusher and other third-party enthusiasts. The Libertarian Party, established in the early 1970s, has long been divided over whether to appeal to disaffected Republicans or hippies. In the 1980 presidential election, the Libertarians achieved great success by espousing a pacifist, left-leaning brand of “low-tax liberalism,” while in 1988 the party turned to Ron Paul, the libertarian populist who would later make waves as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012. The 2012 Libertarian presidential nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, an unpretentious Republican who combined familiar Tea Party bromides with a commitment to ending the War on Drugs, had some promise as an alternative to Mitt Romney, but in the end his candidacy proved to be a footnote, in part because the septuagenarian Paul stole his thunder. The Constitution Party, first established as the U.S. Taxpayers’ Party in 1991, is a vehicle for a hard-edged Christian conservative politics that has never found much success. And in 2000, Pat Buchanan tried to transform Ross Perot’s Reform Party into a nationalist conservative party in line with his own idiosyncratic, anti-trade populism.

Given that all of these efforts have failed, why would the Tea Party movement succeed in establishing itself as a real rival to the GOP? I doubt that it would. But it is true that the political landscape has changed in recent years. Over the past decade, formal party organizations have grown progressively weaker, to the point where they are hollowed-out shells often overshadowed by well-funded independent expenditure groups. This is despite the fact that broad-based party organizations have a number of advantages over non-party outfits, including greater accountability and autonomy. The Tea Party movement already operates as a kind of shadow party within the larger Republican universe, with independent expenditure groups, think tanks, and overlapping networks of intellectuals and activists serving as its foundation. Getting on the ballot would be difficult, as the Democratic-Republican duopoly in most states actively works to suppress political competition from minor parties, but it wouldn’t be impossible.

The obvious downside of a Tea Party exit for conservatives is that the U.S. relies almost exclusively on first-past-the-post elections, in which the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Countries that use various forms of proportional representation are far friendlier to minor parties, which is why Germany, Israel and New Zealand tend to have several parties represented in their national legislatures and not just two. Tea Party candidates in congressional races would presumably be splitting the right-of-center vote with GOP candidates, thus allowing Democrats to slip into office in areas that are now monolithically Republican. Moreover, Tea Party stalwarts have good reason to believe that they can eventually take over the national Republican Party. Why abandon it now when victory is within reach? Of course, the prospect of a Republican Party dominated by the Tea Party movement isn’t exactly heartening to mainstream conservatives who fear that Tea Party excesses will cement a generation-long Democratic majority.

Rather than an outright divorce, Republicans ought to consider a different approach. Right now, Tea Party activists are pledging to launch a new round of primary challenges against Republicans deemed “squishy.” The big problem with primary elections, however, is that they attract relatively few voters, and even fairly well-informed party members often know little about the candidates on primary ballots. Knowing a candidate’s party is tremendously useful — it offers a quick shorthand as to what candidates believe. Primary ballots are bereft of this kind of useful information. Yes, you can generally be assured that the candidates running in a GOP primary are Republicans. But which kind of Republican?

In “Informing Consent: Voter Ignorance, Political Parties, and Election Law,” Christopher Elmendorf of the UC Davis School of Law and David Schleicher of the George Mason University School of Law propose providing primary voters with on-ballot guides to candidates’ issue stances, as well as endorsements. For example, if a Tea Party candidate runs against a regular Republican, she can include endorsements by current officeholders (like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul) or widely-recognized political groups (like Tea Party Express). Republican primary voters would have a much easier time making a meaningful choice between candidates if they knew that one had been endorsed by the Tea Party Express while the other had been endorsed by the centrist Main Street Partnership. This wouldn’t make the GOP’s warring factions fall in love all over again. Indeed, it could intensify intra-party conflict by encouraging the formation of new pressure groups. But it would help settle the question of whether Republicans want to be the party of Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz or of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. And that’s not nothing.

PHOTO: Reporters gather around U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announces he will not filibuster, as he talks to reporters after a Republican Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 16, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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Is this really a question? Who could possibly want to be led by Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin?

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

I based my vote for Ted Cruz on his Tea Party endorsement.

Posted by NEWAGER | Report as abusive

Interesting insights, Mr. Salam. My opinion is the Tea Party can’t survive without the mainstream Republicans. They may want to be a third party, but I don’t think they can get the votes needed to be viable; they went one “crisis” too far.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

The tea party tactics and agenda is outside the acceptable for most voters. Which means with them having a big role the Republicans are doomed to lose. The idea of shutting government till you get what you want when you have a minority position obviously goes against democracy (majority rule). In my view I expect all parties to help things go in the direction the active laws show or amend or repeal them.

I do not know what I would do without regulation of: dangerous things (like radioactive things, explosives) , markets of highly technical things requiring test (drugs, buildings), and all sorts of insurance (not paying out means profits for insurance companies), etc. I need laws and regulations. I therefore will not volt any part claiming to anarchists or libertarians.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The arguments of Mr. Salam are viable. However, he ignores the generational change(s) and the values of new and younger voters.
I would say it is quite possible that the whole political spectrum is shifting to the left. Then GOP (like Christian-Democrats in Germany) is supposed also to move to the left. By the standards of 1980, the Republicans will have to evolve into a “center-center” party.
It gives available ideological space for the hard-core rights.
On the other hand, we can’t exclude the money factor. The oligarchy doesn’t care of ideology. It cares of protecting its interests in the Congress. From this angle, the chance for the Tea Party is quite modest.
Even “straight” Republicans have difficulties of keeping their identity while winning the elections.
Considering the two-party system without broader societal changes is not enough these days.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

It should be obvious. All this gerrymandering is backfiring. It is well know that when trying to reach a consensus, those with alterior agendas will take advantage of that desire. That’s exactly what’s happened with the GOP and especially poor Speaker Of the REpublicans (SORE) – aka Bonehead or Boner. In the futile quest for a copesetic party, they’ve gotten chaos instead.

I’m a lifelong Republican, but in recent years it seems as if we’ve been moved to an insane asylum named the Idiocracy and completely controlled by the Plutocracy.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

“When you lie down with Dogs, you wake up with $25 Billion dollar fleas…”

Posted by Callah | Report as abusive

The Tea Party is the future. The problem with the Republican Party is there are too many old farts in office. John and Mitt were too old to win election. I think the Dems are going to make the same mistake in 2015 by nominating Cllinton.

Posted by Superhank | Report as abusive

Many replies here seem to be ignoring the author’s point. Mr. Salam doesn’t take a position about what the GOP should be(come), he simply endorses the idea of providing primary voters with contemporaneous (i.e. at ballot casting time) information about candidate positions/endorsements.

He asturely concludes: “Indeed, it could intensify intra-party conflict by encouraging the formation of new pressure groups. But it would help settle the question of whether Republicans want to be the party of Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz or of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. And that’s not nothing.”

As a practical matter, given the role of Mr. Murdoch (Fox News, etc.), I suspect the result would be to destroy the current GOP. Do you vote for candidates who believe that Obama is secretly a practicing Muslim born in Africa, or those who disagree? How about candidates who oppose the “war on Christmas?” Anyone who watches Fox News will understand that Roger Ailes’ “talking points of the day” (allegedly issued in a memo or e-mail to all anchors and commentators) will become the required mantras of certain candidates.

Although I’d dearly love to see the GOP in its own putrid venom, I think this would not be good for the two-party system in the long run. Let voters make up their minds before coming to the polling booth. Even if that means that they automatically vote for the candidate with a surname of “Smith” over the candidate with an unfamiliar surname (other things being equal).

Posted by RMoS | Report as abusive

A question not asked here is: Who cares? Is it all about the Politicos who don’t know where to direct their fealty? Or, could it be about the vast majority of Americans who just want a government that can govern? The media with its incessant coverage of the myriad of political angles all promoted by the Plutocracy and their minions in the Wall Street Casinos has made their bet on the former. Some of us remember the days when the mass media was directed toward the interests of the Pee-Ons, not the Tenth of the One Percenters.

It’s the government of the people, by the Plutocracy and for the very, very rich. Political parties such as the More-On Party (MOP), a subset of the Party Of Stupidity & HYpocrisy (POSHY), are just part of the rich people’s game, a side amusement to bailout of their gambling losses in the Wall Street Casinos using Pee-On taxpayer funds. It’s the old steal from the poor to give to the rich Reverse Robin Hood process. The results have already been determined:

The PLUTOCRACY RULES (through the Idiocracy) ! !

How many jobs have the “job creators” offshored today? Hey! Those Chinese and Bangladeshian kids need sub-minimum-wage McJobs too! Senilator McCain told ABC that Apple is the epitome of “Made in USA” with most of its workforce in and all of its products made in Asia. Who profits from this?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Are you implying that Faux News is unfair and unbalanced, manipulated by conservative Plutarchs and appealing to members of MOP using the tools of the Idiocracy? Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

I see a different trend not mentioned in this article.

I see headlines in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg BusinessWeek highly critical of Ted Cruz, AND a constant stream of articles in those two business publications in favor of immigration amnesty and expanded H1B visa immigration. A well-financed campaign for more and more immigration.

What does this mean?

First, remember that immigration amnesty is highly valued by the Democratic Party and Barack Obama.

It must be noted that when the Senate’s Gang of Eight Immigration Reform bill of last month passed in the Senate, it had loud support of BIG GLOBALIST BUSINESS fronted by powerful Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham. In other words, the same old pattern of Republicans supporting BIG BUSINESS as opposed to the American citizen.

When that Immigration Reform bill arrived in the House of Representatives, again it had the backing of the old-guard House Republicans. (Old-guard meaning they have been in Washington long enough to have lost their souls to big money.)

It was only the young, new House Republicans who stood by the American citizen, and valiantly stood up to GLOBALIST BIG BUSINESS, and refused to pass the immigration reform act.

This is why I now support the House Republicans. They are the only part of government still fighting FOR the American citizen, and defending the American citizen against BIG CORPORATE GLOBALIST BUSINESS, and the deadly tsunami of destructive immigration that GLOBALIST BIG BUSINESS, cheered on by their mouthpieces Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg BusinessWeek, has unleashed on America.

Immigration is quickly destroying the American middle class. The only hope to stop it is the as yet uncorrupted House Republicans. That is why I support the House Republicans.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive