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Opinion: Columnists

The Republican establishment and insurgent groups brace for all-out war

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Politics,Timothy P. Carney,Columnists,John Boehner,Mitch McConnell,Senate Conservatives Fund,Heritage Action

The Republican establishment is fed up with the “outside groups” — the conservative lobbying shops and super PACs that have pulled the party Rightward in recent years — and this time, it’s the establishment that is uninterested in compromise.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are playing to win. But here's the problem: Directly fighting the insurgent groups only makes them stronger.

In a span of 48 hours, the party leadership took two direct shots at the conservative insurgents. Boehner attacked the outside groups on camera, singling out Heritage Action. Also, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., fired Republican Study Committee Executive Director Paul Teller, the universally liked longtime leader of the conservative wing on Capitol Hill. The occasion was a dispute over the budget, but it sure looks like a broad effort to bring the insurgency to heel.

Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund all came out against the budget resolution that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., crafted with Democrats. The agreement neuters the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, and conservatives argued that the budget's “fee increases” are really tax hikes.

Party leadership regularly knocks the outside groups for fighting too nasty. When Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., rejected the tactic of trying to defund Obamacare by threating a government shutdown, SCF ran an ad saying “Jeff Flake used to be one of us, but now he has become one of them.”

Boehner’s blowup was spurred by Heritage Action’s critique of the Ryan budget plan, which called no one any names and questioned nobody’s motives.

These days, you see, it’s the establishment wearing brass knuckles.

When a reporter asked Boehner about the groups opposing the budget, the Speaker unloaded. He accused outside groups of “misleading” voters and said the groups had “lost credibility.” This echoes the way McConnell has called the conservative groups “bullies” who deserve to be “punch[ed] in the nose.”

Brian Walsh, a consultant for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, attacked Heritage Action and SCF as “purity for profit” groups because their attacks on the party establishment helps them raise money.

But the kernel of truth in the “purity for profit” attack shows why this offensive by the establishment may be self-defeating. When McConnell and Boehner attack the Heritage Foundation and the SCF, how do you think that affects these groups’ fundraising? Do you think the Boehner blowup and the Teller firing were good or bad for the outside groups?

There’s the establishment’s first problem: It can’t win with a frontal assault. If it strikes SCF, it makes SCF more powerful. And some in the leadership see specific groups, or even individuals, as the problem. One GOP operative referred to SCF president Matt Hoskins as “some guy in a swivel chair in San Diego.”

Hoskins sees it differently. If SCF didn’t exist, grassroots conservatives would still demand more of their party leadership than they’re getting. “They hold the grassroots in contempt,” Hoskins says of GOP leaders.

Here’s the establishment’s second problem: Some in the GOP want to go back to an era in which official party leaders had a monopoly on money and power within the party, and that era is never returning. Changes in campaign finance law has made it possible for small, loosely organized groups to raise money; new technology means news no longer belongs to people who own printing presses or television stations.

Many establishment complaints about Heritage and SCF are justified. The groups are sometimes too quick to call people names or question their motives, and occasionally their demands are obviously unrealistic. But the heart of the establishment complaint is that these groups pressure lawmakers not only through old-fashioned lobbying, but also by directly petitioning constituents. SCF runs ads in GOP Senators’ states saying, “Tell your Senator to oppose the amendment.” This inside-outside lobbying is unacceptable to the old guard. But it’s also here to stay.

That’s why, for now, there is no peace. “I don’t think Humpty-Dumpty can be put back together again,” Hoskins tells me.

“This is just going to play out in the primary elections next year, and there’s going to be a battle for control of the party.”

On the other side of the schoolyard, the feeling is mutual. Walsh wants peace, he tells me, but the only move for the establishment now is to “beat them in every primary.”

Teller's firing and Boehner's blowup show that the GOP establishment has decided that with peace no longer an option, total victory is the only path.

Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.
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