Friday, November 8, 2013

The GOP Civil War: The First Actual Battle

Vote The Squirrel Party
The last election was, more than Dem's vs. Rep's, the first "actual battle" of the GOP's civil war. I say that as someone who has not been very impressed with the "civil war" theory as a whole.

Why wasn't The Omnivore impressed? Despite a bunch of breathless headlines, the Game Theory math of a real division in internal politics seems to boil down to same equation as the Third Party vote: If you fight an intra-party war you both lose.

Why Don't Third Parties Win?
Because it's a losing proposition for supporters. At the national level of campaign contributions prospective donors are actually gambling real money for real value (policy that they want, access, or possibly even favors--but this is true even without corruption). At the individual / personal level your vote is an a show of personal investment and support for an ideology or side: you want to win.

There are all kinds of structural / legal barriers working against 3rd parties (the non-parliamentary system of the US government, rules about ballot access and hard to get numbers of signatories, lack of federal funds below a certain level of success last time around, and appearances during debates) but the real reason why 3rd Parties don't win is because everyone who considers throwing in evaluates the attempt as a bad bet.

People are rightly reluctant to gamble away their 90 minutes of voting annoyance (the drive, the line, the ballot) or their 10 million dollars (Sheldon Adelson could bet on Newt Gingrich at the national level--few of us are so positioned).

That's Why There's No Civil War
So the calculus against a true rift in the GOP is actually quite similar. From the top-down (Establishment) perspective having a super-energized base that will turn out for their party is worth putting up with for a few lost-but-"winnable" races or some embarrassing candidates. From the bottom-up perspecitve (the Tea Party) having a national machine to vote for makes it at least theoretically possible to win a national election.

If you break off and re-boot the Whigs you can see the mountain of electoral math standing against you.

And then there's the "spoiler effect." If you really hate Barack Obama you'd rather have Romney, Michelle Bachmann, or even Joe The Plumber in the White House--he's that bad. If you give your vote to someone other than Romney you know it's 4 more years of OBummer. That's powerful persuasion.

And it worked: despite what you may have feared, evangelicals did come out to vote for the Mormon. It was the down-scale blue collar white guys who just weren't arsed enough to get to the polling place. They may not like Obama--but they weren't quite ready for "anyone but."

Which Brings Us To The Election
What we saw on the 5th, however, was a shift in this static condition--even if, for now, only a small one. Why do I say that?

Dean Young vs. Brad Byrn
There has been talk about "Business money" supporting "non-crazy" candidates--but up until now, that was talk. In Alabama culture-warrior (birther, seriously anti-gay marriage) Dean Young was beaten by 5% by the business-backed candidate Bradley Byrn:
Bonner was part of a flurry of establishment GOP support that rallied to Byrne’s side during the runoff. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent at least $199,000 on his behalf, while big companies such AT&T and Home Depot donated thousands to Byrne’s campaign down the stretch.
This is a big deal: talk is inexpensive. Donations--especially in state-level races--make a difference.

Notes: It's important to keep in mind that Byrn will probably win the seat (this was the primary) so this isn't a Republican loss. It's also necessary to note that Young is running around saying his coming close validates his Tea Party credentials. This is an important note for later (and it's also a bit of trickery: The Tea Party narrative is that they are unstoppable in midterm elections, in other words, a favorite. A favorite losing by a little is still an upset).

Ken Cuccinelli vs. Terry McAuliffe
The VA Gubernatorial race is where all the heat and light is--and the story is well told: Cuccinelli, the more Tea-Like candidate, lost VA to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. It wasn't a pounding--but it was a loss--and a predicted one at that.

At least one post-mortem makes the case that his loss was unnecessary: if not for the government shutdown, he'd have won--especially with Obamacare foundering:
The debate over Obamacare and the shutdown was about tactics, ... In this effort, Cuccinelli and his Republican brethren were on the same side. Cuccinelli and Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz, two of the main authors of the effort to defund Obamacare, are fellow travelers. They believe that the health care law is so bad that all necessary measures should be taken to undermine it. ... pushing for a government shutdown, despite what the polls and many of their fellow Republicans told them.
In this instance the bigger picture race was lost because of Tea Tactics (you know, maybe). If that's so, it's a black-and-white condemnation of the Tea Party approach to politics (lighting oneself on fire and charging).

Notes: Again, the closeness of the race allows anyone to speculate on anything. That's fine--but it's hard to argue that McAuliffe was any kind of cracker-jack candidate. It's also important to note that Virginia, probably now a bluish-purple electorally, is crucial to both parties in 2016. The winning maps for the GOP without it are really rough.

Chris Christie vs. That Other Candidate
Finally we get to Christie's blow-out. Now, as everyone has noted (and you better believe it), a Republican winning in a blue-state is way, way different than that same guy winning the Republican primary--or even a general election (why have a fake Democrat when you can get a real one next space down the ballot?) but the fact remains that Christie's domination was his booster-rocket for his definitely-coming 2016 run.

He will have Ted Cruz to his right and no one, save maybe Huntsman, if Huntsman's fin crests the water-line again, to his left. With visceral hatred lined up against him on the right for his kissy-face with Obama (Super Storm Sandy) the opening question will be whether or not he's got a chance (and whether or not he burns some straight-shooter cred to tac right).

However, the lay of the land is clear: Christie is coming--and he's losing a lot of weight (stomach surgery). There are good odds in 3 years he'll be fit enough to have a shot at the nomination. People are gonna have to decide again if they go with him or, like Cruz / Santorum.

The New Math
With actual events pointing to the power of centrist positions (remember: some people still think that McCain and Romney lost because they were not right wing enough--laughable) the question we'll face is whether or not there can be candidates on the right that appeal both to the Tea Party and the middle (at least, erm, some of the middle).

When you have a Tea Candidate as the nominee--as we did in a bunch of 2010 races, it's the centrists who have to look at throwing their votes away. When we have a centrist as the nominee (as we did in 2008 and 2016) it's the Tea Party that has to make the same decision. The question will be whether the forces of actual funding and targeted Super PACs can close that divide enough to find best-fit candidates who can bring enough of both.

Bonus question: Why don't candidates like Dean Young appeal to the business wing? Or moderates? Is it the anti-gay rhetoric? The birther stuff? Or something else entirely (their economic policies)?


  1. One thing I don't get is why there is still reference to a "Tea Party" when, as I understand it, it originally consisted of libertarian minded folks - that is, people who wanted fiscal and government restraint, while at the same time professed civil-liberties permissiveness.

    That original movement was very early on hijacked by several GOP politicians in what was (to me at least) a transparent grab at the group's ground-swell of populist energy. That hijacking resulted in a "Tea Party movement" within the GOP that immediately dropped the civil-liberties element, and ran with the fiscal/government restraint component.

    Now, again as I understand it, the GOP is self-proclaimed to be the party of small government and fiscal restraint while also being the party of conservative social values. So somebody please explain to me how that standard GOP body is any different than this current "Tea Party" group. By my view, there is currently no such thing as a "Tea Party". It's just GOP. Right-extremist or centrist, the difference is in degree, not content. The original Tea Party was an actual change in content - a change that does not now exist. Neither therefore does the Tea Party.

    1. My response to this is worth its own post (so it'll take a little while)--but immediately: Whatever you want to call it there is the very-conservative group (the 'Tea Party') and the 'establishment group' (the "GOPe") and they are "fighting it out."

      This is a very bad description of what's really going on--but nontheless there is a tension in the party and using these words to describe it gets us *somewhere* ahead of "theseguyswhoreallylikeTedCruz" or whatever. But, yeah: there's some truth to the above too. Like I said: more than just a note here.

  2. "theseguyswhoreallylikeTedCruz"
    ...point taken :). Thanks for the response!