The coming months are shaping up to be fateful ones for the national Republican Party. Among GOP voters, Donald Trump continues to lead other presidential contenders, followed by Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. When John Boehner announced he would step down as House speaker and resign from Congress, conservatives cheered. They hope to install someone more inclined to champion their views, even if it means shutting down the government.
Big choices will determine whether the party will be able to regain the White House and reverse many of the policies of President Barack Obama. The question Republicans and other Americans have to ask is: Does the party want to win elections and govern the country? Or is it more inclined to function as a noisy faction that serves mainly to channel disgust at those in power?
When Marco Rubio broke the news about Boehner while addressing an audience of staunch conservatives at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, the crowd roared with delight. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, spoke for many on the right when he said, “We welcome Republican leadership that understands that some values, like life, religious liberty and national defense, are worth fighting for — no matter what.”
But Boehner was hardly a moderate or a RINO (Republican in Name Only). As Rep. Tim Huelskamp, chairman of the House Tea Party Caucus, put it, “He was tea party before there was a Tea Party Caucus.” He shares most of the policy views of the GOP’s right wing. He even went along with the 2013 government shutdown that firebrands pushed in an effort to block the implementation of Obamacare.
But that effort failed, and Obama has learned how to get his way on issue after issue (immigration, the Iran deal, paid sick leave for employees of federal contractors, among others). That leaves many Republicans wondering what good it is to have majorities in both houses if they can’t get their way.
That frustration has found outlets on the presidential campaign trail. Trump is hardly a conservative purist on the issues, but his blunt, sometimes outrageous attacks on elected leaders have thrilled many of the party faithful. Carson and Fiorina are attractive partly because they are outsiders who have never held office — and therefore never had to make the compromises that elected officials have to make.
Boehner appears to have stepped down rather than go along with another government shutdown, which many conservatives were willing to bring about in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood. He learned from the last shutdown, which most Americans blamed on the GOP. He grasped that a repetition would only damage the party with voters going into the presidential election — and would not actually end up defunding Planned Parenthood.
The problem the party faces is the problem of divided government. The American system is set up so that it’s hard for either the White House or Congress to impose its will on the other. Obama can’t get new programs passed as long as Republicans hold Capitol Hill. Republicans, however, can’t roll back Obamacare or his immigration policies as long as there is a Democrat in the Oval Office.
So each party’s best hope is to persuade the American people to embrace its policies and elect its candidates in 2016. For House Republicans, that means selecting a speaker who can find a way to satisfy tea partyers without alienating the public in futile missions. For the party rank-and-file, it means choosing a presidential nominee who can appeal to swing voters as well as the GOP base.
With this sort of approach — principled but shrewd — Republicans might be able to turn their opinions into actual policies, not just applause lines at conservative gatherings. But first, they have to decide they would rather run the government than run against it.
Editorial by The Chicago Tribune