Yesterday’s New York Times had a lengthy article on an intensifying battle for control of the Republican Party. On one side is the party establishment, which prefers to eschew the kind of extremist tactics that culminated in the party’s embarrassing defeat last week as Congress voted to re-open the government and fund the debt. On the other side are insurgent conservatives, who are determined to resurrect the same or similar tactics at the first opportunity.
Informative as it is, the article demonstrates the Times’ continued difficulty in finding the right language to use in dealing with Republican radicalism. The Times’ use of the terms “establishment” and “insurgency” reflects wishful thinking.
The Times’ correspondents clearly intend “establishment” as more or less a synonym for moderate, which really means conservative-but-not-crazy; the term suggests that basically reasonable, responsible people are, at least for now, dominant in the party. But this perspective is dated. Once upon a time, it was reasonable to talk about a Republican establishment, centered on the mostly Northeastern business-oriented elites who almost invariably were able to impose their relatively moderate choices on Republican presidential nominating conventions. Those days are long past. Republican governors, many of them pragmatists because forced to deal with the real-world problems of governing, were also often identified with the establishment. That time too, has mostly passed; well over half of the country’s Republican governors have participated in their party’s efforts to obstruct Obamacare implementation
Mainstream journalists like to cling to the fiction that there is a Republican establishment, relatively moderate, that is fighting to keep their party from being swallowed up by the crazies. The problem is that that putative establishment doesn’t exist. Often it seems that the relatively pragmatic conservatives (and reactionaries) are the insurgents, trying to restrain the more extreme impulses of the radical right, which is now the driving force in the party. Two-thirds of the Republicans in the House (including Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan) voted last week with the supposed insurgents. Which raises the question: if the supposed insurgents are dominant, are they still insurgents?
The struggle within the Republican Party isn’t between a relatively moderate establishment and a conservative insurgency. The struggle is between realists who can recognize defeat when staring it in the face and genuinely crazy extremists who cannot.