(Editor's Note: As the end of 2013 approaches, the Washington Examiner is shining a spotlight on its best columns of the year. Today, it's senior political columnist Timothy P. Carney writing about clashes within the Republican Party in the lead-up to the October government shutdown. This column first ran on Sept. 29 and can be found in its original form here.)
Can anyone lead this Republican Party? The official party leadership hasn’t figured out how to lead in the current political environment. And Sen. Ted Cruz learned this week that he doesn’t know how to call the shots, either.
To understand the Republican leadership vacuum, consider what's different today compared to five years ago.
The 2010 Citizens United ruling has spawned super PACs that offset the power of the political parties and K Street. The Republican earmark ban has taken away a vote-whipping tool. The Internet’s advances have turned the grassroots into kudzu vines. The committee process has grown feeble. And all of these changes have injected an anti-establishment fervor into the GOP base.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner don’t know how to lead in this environment.
Sen. Tom Coburn in mid-September told the GOP Conference that the fractious state of the party stemmed from a lack of leadership – a lack of clear goals and strategies – according to GOP Senate aides. Sen. Ron Johnson – also not a Cruz minion – has loudly and regularly complained about this leadership gap, too.
The guy who figured out how to lead in the new environment also helped create it: Jim DeMint.
DeMint first beat McConnell on the campaign trail: His Senate Conservatives Fund got Marco Rubio, Cruz and Rand Paul elected in 2010 and 2012 over the GOP leadership’s picks in those states. Allied groups elected Mike Lee over incumbent McConnell ally Bob Bennett.
DeMint then beat McConnell and got the GOP to ban earmarks. How does a back-bencher defeat the leadership? By taking the fight to the public. DeMint and Coburn over a few years introduced floor amendments to strip earmarks, thus forcing votes that embarrassed the porkers. Conservative grassroots, acting through budding Tea Party organizations, applied pressure to lawmakers. This wore down Coburn’s and DeMint’s opponents. After the 2010 election, McConnell embraced the earmark ban.
DeMint now runs the Heritage Foundation, whose lobbying arm, Heritage Action, is the spearhead of the Beltway Tea Party. The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by DeMint, is growing under the direction of former DeMint consigliere Matt Hoskins.
These groups, together with DeMint recruits Lee and Cruz, have shown the ability to win votes through the Tea Party Whip Operation - rallying the grassroots to pressure wavering Republicans.
Team DeMint won this year’s gun control fight this way. Republican leaders were going to leave Republican senators free to vote for universal background checks. Cruz whipped up the base to keep the party in line. Cruz won, and the GOP blocked a vote on background checks.
Team DeMint often stakes itself on the rightward edge and demands all Republicans join it. When the GOP leadership and Obama meet in the middle, that middle is further right than it would have been.
This succeeded during the debt-ceiling debate. DeMint championed an ambitious budget plan called “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” and whipped up the grassroots pressure until it became the Republican position. From that far-right position, Republican leadership negotiated to a compromise: sequestration.
But there were costs. The main tool – maybe the only tool – Team DeMint uses to keep senators in line is “name and shame.” Lawmakers and outside groups demanded all Republicans sign a pledge for Cut, Cap, & Balance. Those who didn't sign were branded as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and threatened with primary challenges.
This can work in the short term, but make enemies in the long term. That’s especially true when the pure position all Republicans are forced to adopt turns out to be a negotiating tactic.
This is what has happened in the defund-Obamacare fight. Cruz, Lee and the outside groups have their tactics, which include opposing cloture on the continuing resolution. To hold the line, Cruz and Lee repeated: “Defund it or you own it,” and more precisely, “a vote for cloture is a vote for Obamacare.”
Cruz and Lee painted differences in tactics as a lack of principle — or a sign of secret liberalism.
This burns bridges. Conservative Republicans get tired of being told they are sellouts because they take a different tactical approach. Which gets us where we are today: Most Republican senators got tired of Ted Cruz and voted for cloture on the continuing resolution.
The current form of the Tea Party Whip Operation, it turns out, is an unsustainable way to lead.
Can any Republicans find a way that works?
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.