What embarrassing defeats tell us about a splintered Republican Party

By Matthew Gagnon

On Tuesday, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives faced down twin humiliations. 

The first failure was a Republican-sponsored $17.6 billion Israel aid package, which went down in flames. The second, and higher profile failure, was in a vote attempting to impeach the Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. 

The dramatic vote, which failed 214 to 216, was an unexpected humiliation, because the Republicans should have won this vote. They have the numbers, and have been headhunting Mayorkas for more than a year, blaming him for the crisis at the southern border. They always knew their impeachment was doomed in the Senate, but they went “all-in” on making a point about the problem and Mayorkas’ leadership by trying this. 

Yet the effort failed. It will likely succeed in a second attempt, but the setback has once again highlighted the ongoing crack up of the conservative governing coalition. 

The current makeup of the House is 219 Republicans to 212 Democrats, with four vacancies, making the GOP majority only seven votes if everyone shows up. This is frequently pointed to as the reason why the House Republicans are so chaotic, but the Democrats had a similarly thin majority in the 117th Congress. They began with only a nine-seat majority, but by the end their majority was down to only three. Despite this, they operated in virtual lockstep for two years.

Part of the difference boils down to rules. Under Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership in the prior Congress, the rule governing a motion to “vacate the chair,” or remove the speaker, was changed to necessitate a majority of either party initiating the motion. Prior to this (and since) the rules of the House allowed a single member to call for a vote to remove the speaker. This is what ultimately led to Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as speaker last year

And in the past, even with this rule in place, we have seen thin majorities operate smoothly. Why is the Republican Party such a mess right now? Why is it being split apart at the seams?

To answer this, we have to better understand what the parties really are.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties are actually made up of many “parties within parties,” or different groups that are quite different, but collaborate in either common cause, common opposition, or both.

On the Republican side, many people have attempted to describe the lines that define the internal divisions. When I look at the party, I tend to see five macro groups. 

The most prominent is the nationalistic, or populist wing represented by Donald Trump. There is also what I like to call a “Chamber of Commerce” wing of establishment types who favor the status quo and focus mostly on marginal change to promote economic growth. There is the ever-shrinking national security internationalists who believe in global American leadership and engagement. You have religious “faith and values” voters who believe the primary mission of government is to do cultural battle on a variety of moral issues. And you have the libertarians, who seek to deconstruct the state. 

These groups overlap with each other on many issues like some kind of grotesque Venn diagram, so the lines can be very unclear. The public at large likes to think of a party as one “thing,” but the reality is that it is an ever-evolving collection of shifting internal alliances based on where the diagram overlaps, and which “parties” are more popular in the moment.

The important thing to understand, though, was that in the past the Republican Party had a glue of sorts holding it together and keeping these oftentimes radically different groups together and disciplined. In the latter half of the 20th century that glue was the global fight against communism. When the Soviet Union fell, that glue was later replaced by the global war on terror. 

Now this glue is gone, and there is nothing enforcing unity or discipline within the party anymore. As a result, we are starting to see just how much contempt many of these internal parties have for each other, causing the routine creation of circular firing squads that destroy any ability to effectively govern. 

Where will this end? I don’t know. It is possible that Republicans can find a new glue to hold them together. I believe it is more likely, though, that we are already in the middle of a fundamental political realignment. If that happens, what the Republican Party looks like 20 years from now will be very, very different than what it looks like today.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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