The Republican Party may well have put its destiny on display for all to see this past week.
For months, its leaders had promised us their new Republican-controlled Congress would hit the ground running to show America the GOP can not only govern, but actually make Washington work.
Then they took their first bold step — right onto an upturned rake.
As stars, suns and moons circled overhead, the GOP’s leaders seemed befuddled about what just happened — and clueless about how to fix it. But it seemed clear to everyone who watched it play out, as if in slow motion, before our disbelieving eyes.
It started with a GOP leadership misstep back in December. And it ended up as a bit of political theater in two acts, performed separately but simultaneously. One starred the Republicans in Congress; the other starred the activist conservative base that sees itself as the Grand Old Party of tomorrow, demonstrating its ascendant influence at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
First, let’s remember December: Republican congressional leaders were understandably enraged after President Barack Obama took executive actions to achieve immigration reforms Congress never even attempted. But the GOP leaders responded in a most irresponsible way: pandering to the party’s right wingers by playing a political game of chicken with Department of Homeland Security funding.
Republicans plucked DHS out of the funding for other federal programs and insisted it could only be funded by including a provision to scrap Obama’s immigration reforms. Obama and Democrats of course rejected that.
In the House, some 50 Republicans aligned with the tea party faction rejected any compromises — and House Speaker John Boehner wound up unable to control his own majority party. For two months, the Republican-controlled Congress came right up to a homeland security shutdown deadline, then pushed a three-week reprieve, and then pushed one week more.
Time out: Imagine what conservatives would have been saying if Democrats threatened to shut down homeland security funding at a time when Islamic terrorists threatened to attack shopping malls and other American targets. Conservatives would’ve blasted Democrats as unpatriotic — and worse! And they’d be right.
Many wise senior Republicans publicly lambasted the tea party conservatives and privately said worse about GOP leaders’ inability to lead, and their party’s failure to govern. One of the most influential blasts came from a senior House Republican who is not known for basking in television spotlights — the new House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif. Nunes blasted fellow conservatives who were threatening to vote no, or not vote at all on proposals to end the standoff.
“We face more global and domestic threats today than ever before, and they’re growing worse by the day,” Nunes said in a statement last Saturday. “This is not a time in history in which members of Congress have the luxury of not voting while hiding behind empty posturing and populist rhetoric.”
He added: “I also applaud the roughly 200 GOP Members who are consistently in the arena — on the House floor — trying to advance the conservative agenda. I prefer to be in the arena voting than trying to placate a small group of phony conservative members who have no credible policy proposals and no political strategy to stop Obama’s lawlessness.”
Two days later the House Republicans quietly ended their homeland security scare, funding the department until the end of the fiscal year.
Meanwhile, that same day, perhaps a better barometer of the future of the GOP was on display nine miles south of the Capitol dome, at CPAC, attended by thousands of primarily young conservatives.
While the media’s big eye was focused on the week-long parade of presidential hopefuls, the real future of the GOP may have been glimpsed at an afternoon panel session under CPAC’s red-and-white “Conservative Action Starts Here” banner. The audience of young conservatives was being urged to go home and start running for the smallest local offices, as a way of someday rising to control the GOP.
Jenny Beth Martin, founder of the Tea Party Patriots, was applauded and cheered after she derided Obama’s immigration executive actions (where reforms weren’t attempted) and especially when she said of Obamacare, “We still have the opportunity to repeal that!” (The House has voted 56 times to repeal Obamacare.)
But another panelist, Ned Ryun, founder of the American Majority, warned that Republicans have too often just been “the party of ‘No' … we have to have solutions!” His sane warning was silently received.
In that aural snapshot we can see the great divide Republicans must bridge if their Grand Old Party is ever going to survive, let alone return to its old days of glory, grandeur and, someday perhaps, governance.
Email Mr. Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.