For the Republican Party, there has been a great deal of frustration with Washington and the national component of the party. At the state and local level, Republicans dominate state legislatures and governors’ mansions at a disproportionate number than Democrats. At the national level, the Republicans have now taken control of the legislative branch, however, they still have not achieved what they thought such a majority would. This frustration has played out to some degree during the early nomination process for the next Republican candidate for president.
“If you’re looking for someone to go to Washington, to go along to get along, to get — to agree with the career politicians in both parties who get in bed with the lobbyists and special interests, then I ain’t your guy,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz said at the first Republican debate in August. Being associated with Washington has become a liability for some candidates, especially those close to the establishment. For those such as Cruz – who bills himself as a protest senator of sorts to fight the establishment in Congress – and other Washington outsiders from governors to some candidates that have not even held office, it is easy to rail against the national party, which has failed to produce conservative results.
Take what Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said during the undercard Republican debate last week that preceded the primetime debate;
“Will the Senate Republicans — they still have time — are they willing to use the nuclear option, meaning get rid of the filibusters, stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power? Now is the time for the Senate Republicans to stand up and fight. We are tired of the establishment saying there’s nothing we can do. All night tonight, we’ve heard Republicans say things like, ‘Well, if the Supreme Court’s ruled, there’s nothing I can do about religious liberty,’ you know. ‘The president did this. There’s nothing we can do about it for two more years.’ There is something we can do. We won the Senate. We won the House. What was the point of winning those chambers if we’re not going to do anything with them?”
Republicans tried controversial tactics in the past to force the hand of President Obama and Democrats to defund the Affordable Care Act. The government shutdown in 2013 led by Senator Cruz backfired against Republicans and many in the establishment are reluctant to force a similar battle right now over defunding Planned Parenthood.
“When we shut the government down -- if we have a chance at success and it's a great principle, yes. The president of the United States is not going to sign this, and all we're gonna do is shut the government down, and then we're gonna open up -- open it up, and the American people are gonna shake their heads and say, ‘what's the story with these Republicans?’” Ohio Governor John Kasich, said at the primetime debate last week. “But I would not be for shutting the government down.”
The same goes for the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding same-sex marriage. For conservative outsiders, they want to challenge the Court’s decision and push back against what they deem to be an activist court. Others in the establishment, while in agreement towards the ruling, more desire to uphold the current system and the rule of law.
“I was opposed to the decision, but we -- you can't just say, ‘well, they -- gays can't get married now,’” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said during the prime time debate last week.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham offered one of the clearest defenses for pragmatism from an establishment point of view against the attacks from the within his own party that have taken place over the last five years. “So Bobby, [President Obama] would veto the bill, we don’t have 67 votes, and you’re giving away a defense against Obama for the rest of his presidency,” Graham replied to Jindal’s criticism above. “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to tell you things I can’t do. I’m not going to tell you by shutting the government down, we’re going to defund Obamacare as long as he’s president. All that does is hurt us. I am trying to lead this party to winning… So folks, the world really is the way it is.” Graham described the government shutdown strategy as one that will “and tank our ability to win.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has spent the last several years in the minority of the Senate. He decried then-Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) decision to go nuclear on presidential appointments as a dangerous precedent. “[S]ome of us have been around here long enough to know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot,” McConnell said in 2013 indicating that Republicans can turn the tables if and when they get to the majority. As someone who spent a great deal of time in the minority, McConnell would be loath to change Senate procedural rules, something he has caught much flak from the far right on, among other criticisms this presidential cycle.
Kasich, is on both sides of this debate. “I think they ought to go to the nuclear option in the United States Senate…It ought to be decided by 51 votes, not by 60 votes or some filibuster.” Kasich said on CNN this weekend regarding the vote to disapprove the Iran accord. “When it comes to a treaty this critical, one that I so strongly oppose, I think the Republicans in the sense ought to say that we are not going to permit this to be blocked because of a filibuster.”
Kasich, thought to be a moderate voice in the party, demonstrates how divisive the political climate has become and how frustrated conservatives in Washington are from having to concede on Obamacare, to the shutdown last year, and several other “loses” to Democrats within the last half decade or so.
For many voters, the political system is too gridlocked at the national level. Many have expressed positive feelings toward firebrand candidate Donald Trump because he is changing the game. For conservatives, the last six years have been difficult as they were in the minority at both the legislative and executive branch of the national government, regained both chambers of the legislature, but still appear to be powerless against a liberal president – this despite unprecedented success at the state and local level. For these conservatives, and most Americans, the current political system is not working. As the election season plays out, the Republican Party will have to grapple with this phenomenon of establishment versus insurgent or outsider regarding the trajectory of the party in the future.