The current divide in the GOP isn’t that deep

Republicans are dominated by the Trump wing of their party

Vice President Mike Pence and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly embrace in the House chamber on Jan. 7 after the certification of Electoral College votes during a joint session of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Mike Pence and Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly embrace in the House chamber on Jan. 7 after the certification of Electoral College votes during a joint session of Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 13, 2021 at 6:30am

OPINION — Throughout most of 2020, members of the national media were obsessed with the divide between progressives and pragmatists in the Democratic Party.

In columns and news articles, as well as on cable TV “news,” experts and novices alike bombarded readers and viewers with reports of the Democrats’ problems trying to live with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and President-elect Joe Biden in the same party.

If Hillary Clinton couldn’t energize progressives in the age of the “squad,” how on earth could an old white man who didn’t embrace “Medicare for All” or the entire Green New Deal rally Democrats of all stripes behind his candidacy?

In truth, the liberal divide had been papered over months before Election Day as Biden articulated his core values (including diversity, support for organized labor and the need to move past the divisiveness of Donald Trump) and progressives decided that however imperfect Biden might be as a standard-bearer for the Democratic Party, he and running mate Kamala Harris were far, far superior to four more years of Trump and Mike Pence.

Fast forward to today and you won’t have any trouble finding articles or chatter about the GOP civil war between supporters of Trump and Republicans (including thoughtful conservatives) who decry Trump’s authoritarian instincts and responsibility for the riotous attack on the United States Capitol.

Most of the analysis is correct, of course, just as most of the analysis about the Democratic divide was correct. There was a Democratic divide early in the year that evaporated during the general election, and there is a divide developing within the GOP.

But what is missing in all the chatter and analysis is some perspective.

Nothing new

Both parties have had and continue to have “wings” — constituencies at odds with each other. In the mid-20th century, the Taft wing of the GOP was unhappy with the party’s dominant internationalist majority, just as the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party was a headache for party institutionalists.

George Wallace’s populism didn’t fit comfortably with liberal elements of the Democratic Party, just as the New Right of the 1970s and early 1980s created intense conflict inside the GOP. The tea party did the same more recently for Republicans.

It’s unclear how deep and long-lasting the current GOP divide is. But it’s quite possible that the fracture will heal surprisingly quickly, if imperfectly.

Many Republican and conservative critics of Trump have already left the party and blame Trump’s apologists on Capitol Hill for the past four years. I suppose they will return to the GOP when people in the mold of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and the late Sen. John McCain and President George H.W. Bush are in charge, but that seems a long way off.

The Trump wing of the Republican Party is large, and as others have noted, the president’s popularity among self-identified Republicans has been hard to shake. In many surveys, more Republicans see themselves as more loyal to Trump than to the GOP.

Supporters of the president see themselves as outsiders and insurgents fighting the so-called Deep State.

For the moment, many conservatives have gone silent. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are not men of a few words, so their silence is noteworthy.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy encouraged Trump for years but apparently has taken shelter in a cave, along with dozens of other House and Senate Republicans. (House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming is one of the few Republicans in leadership to call out the president.)

A large majority of Republicans across the ideological spectrum have expressed shock at the assault on the Capitol. They are not going to defend rioters and hooligans. But in a couple of weeks, their attention — and the nation’s — will turn to the Biden legislative agenda.

Ties that bind

At that point, the focus will return to the policy differences that divide Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.

Remember, only hours after domestic terrorists defiled the Capitol, 138 House Republicans and seven Republican senators sought to decertify Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, establishing themselves as radicals who cared more about winning than about the democratic process.

While Romney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger remain Republicans, they do not reflect the general approach and tone of the national party. The GOP is the party of extremist lunatics — of Alabama’s Mo Brooks and Barry Moore, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Texas’ Louie Gohmert, Arizona’s Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar, Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and, yes, the Trump family.

Even Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a veteran institutionalist who certainly knew better, joined the ranks of those who wanted to decertify Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

It’s also the party of Hawley and Cruz. And of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — not the Marco Rubio of the 2016 GOP presidential primaries, but the one who didn’t challenge Trump no matter how vile the president’s words or behavior. At least Rubio broke with his Florida colleague Rick Scott when it came to challenging Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

The GOP has become the party of Trump and of intolerance and incivility. Suddenly, after the election and the rioting, they call for bipartisanship and cooperation. What hogwash.

While Democrats still have a fundamental divide between progressive purists and progressive pragmatists, the GOP will soon come together to unite against higher taxes, more regulations, steps to address global climate change, poverty and voting rights. And they will scream once again about socialism and antifa.

The question is whether Democrats can use that strategy to keep their own party together.