Dysfunction. Stalemate. Impasse. These words have been used to describe the general lack of ability for significant legislative priorities to advance through the two houses of Congress. Reporters and commentators in the 24-hour news cycle struggle to understand how a Republican Party that controls the White House and holds the majority in both houses struggles to pass legislation on its key issues. This bewilderment comes from a belief that we are operating in a traditional two-party system. We aren’t.
While there are, still, two major party committees under which most federal elected officials campaign, the legislative branch’s current operations are much more akin to a coalition government versus a two-party state. Such governments are common throughout the world in parliamentary systems, where multiple political parties representing varying interests and populations vie for control, power, and the right to dictate policy. Compromise and deal-making between different factions in this model of government is essential, and often enables more effective governance.
Back here in America where we have only two main political parties, the competing factions in each party have grown in influence sufficient to define themselves as almost wholly independent interests. These groups increasingly act as competing blocs. And the addition of a new player, with the transactional pragmatism of President Trump, has the power to change the way coalitions of bipartisan support are developed to pass legislation.
What’s more, the absence of central leadership or a “kingmaker” in each party has left a power vacuum that has caused both the Democratic and Republican parties to splinter, creating five distinct offshoots we see today, all contending for their respective party’s control.
These competing factions in both parties are the key reason why the efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare failed. But these factions are also the primary reason that the GOP tax reform initiative has a much higher likelihood of success.
There has been a great deal of bad analysis by reporters and commentators who fail to understand the essential groups that make up the Republican Party, the issues that motivate them, and why. For them, and for anyone who wants a better understanding of the power dynamics at play in the party that currently controls Congress, consider this a remedial primer.
The Republican Party
In today’s GOP, three groups each hold enough power to stop legislation, a default veto. While they aren’t necessarily made up of “single-issue” legislators, the divisions typically come down to the top priority for each group’s members, and their relative ideological view on that position.
The first group within the GOP consists of defense hawks, or neo-conservatives, for whom national security, foreign affairs, and a strong national defense top the list of priorities. Keeping America safe and defending freedom and democracy throughout the world are what these legislators wake up every morning and go to sleep every night worrying about. A perfect example of these legislators are such statesmen as Sen. John McCain, Sen. Tom Cotton, and Congressman Adam Kinzinger.
Neo-conservatives believe in making significant investment in foreign policy, both soft aid and military preparedness, while they tend to hold more moderate views on domestic issues, and many lean left on questions of abortion and marriage. Believing that without a strong national defense, our country would be so vulnerable that domestic issues wouldn’t matter, conventional social issues aren’t a focus.
The second group that makes up a sizeable, though shrinking, piece of the GOP is the social conservatives. Once the driving force behind the GOP in the mid-to-late 1990s, this group has lost some of its control over the party, particularly to the defense hawks following 9/11, and to libertarians and fiscal conservatives as the Tea Party movement took hold around 2008.
Social conservatives, whose leadership of the party was unquestioned from the time of Ronald Reagan through the election of George W. Bush, typically align themselves with strong national defense issues, but are primarily concerned about domestic and social issues. Led by individuals like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council in coalition with groups like Concerned Women for America and the American Family Association, this is where the evangelical Christian wing of the Republican Party is most prominent and fights for issues such as a federal ban on abortion, protections for religious freedom and conscience, traditional marriage, and the enabling of parents to raise their children without interference from the State.
This third group within the GOP, made up of libertarians and small-government fiscal conservatives (classical liberals, as your poli sci professor called them), gained prominence during George W. Bush’s second term. They have gathered increasing power as concerns over indefinite defense spending and government overreach began to grow among the electorate.
This wing of the party was most effectively galvanized by people like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and his group FreedomWorks, which is widely credited with creating and growing the TEA (“Taxed Enough Already”) Party movement between 2004-2012. Their rapid ascent to a position of influence and control within the Republican Party was born on a wave of renewed desire for fiscal conservatism and regulatory reform, and a general belief that the federal government had become too overbearing following the GOP administration of George W. Bush, which brought with it significantly higher deficits and spending as well, which was followed by the election of President Barack Obama, a classic tax-and-spend liberal.
While there is certainly crossover between these groups, the general ideological worldview of each is fairly well-defined by the groups and individual leaders who have maintained their respective influence.
The challenge for Republican leaders today lies in that, if you take the House or Senate members from each of these groups, no two groups add up to 51%, which is why legislative initiatives like the repeal and replacement of Obamacare could not, and probably cannot, be passed.
With that said, looking at these factions, it should also give Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy some hope. While these disparate factions in the GOP were responsible for the failure of repeal legislation for ObamaCare, it is conceivable that the right leadership could bring together a coalition of support for tax reform. However, as it stands now, Vice President Mike Pence may only be one person within the Republican Party who has the ability to accomplish such a feat. If given the authority to work with House and Senate leadership unrestrained, the vice president could likely use the credibility and the relationships he has built with those members to succeed in shepherding through sweeping tax reform, where others would be certain to fail.
The Democratic Party
Lest they be deluded of their own unity, Democrats have their own version of the Republican civil war, which began to be exposed in the 2008 election and was sharply revealed during the 2016 campaign.
Two distinct factions within the Democratic Party are actively jockeying for control of a party reeling from unexpected losses last year. But the difference between the situation within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is that the factions are not based on ideological or policy differences, they are primarily based on tactics and strategy.
During the 2016 primaries we saw former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leader of the traditional/ establishment Democratic Party, compete with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a registered Independent who caucuses with Democrats. Sen. Sanders and his colleague, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, control a growing and very influential progressive bloc of the Democratic Party.
While most of America probably doesn’t understand the difference between these two groups, they are, in fact, at war with each other. While Secretary Clinton and her supporters tend to be more moderate and pragmatic, Sen. Warren represents an ideologically-focused, aggressive, activist wing of the party that is less likely to compromise. In this respect, they are similar in tactics to the Tea Party on the other side of the aisle. Willing to engage, and overthrow, party leaders who don’t follow their platform or strategy, they are less interested in partisan loyalty, and more focused on advancing a progressive policy agenda.
An example of this was the campaign of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Chairperson of the Democratic National Committee from May 2011 until July 2016. She was a well-known supporter of Hillary Clinton, but became a target of the progressive wing of the party, and its leader, Sen. Warren, when she co-sponsored H.R. 4018, a bipartisan bill that would have delayed the implementation of regulations by Sen. Warren’s signature policy achievement, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Disregarding impact on the party, Sen. Warren mobilized the vast network of political support that she has quietly built over the last 10 years through organizations like the Americans for Financial Reform and the Center for Responsible Lending, and focused their efforts on ousting Congresswoman Schultz from her elected position in Florida. They ran an economist and law professor named Tim Canova against her with Sen. Sanders’ very public endorsement. While Congresswoman Schultz retained her seat despite these efforts from the progressive wing of the party, a significant amount of resources had to be spent on fighting her primary challenger, resources that would otherwise have gone to other races.
The progressive wing of the party employs such strategies and tactics that are based on activism, while the Clinton wing of the party is more focused on partisan identity and the need for a unification of the party to make up lost representation in Congress that is necessary to regain the power to address their policy initiatives. It was the Clinton wing of the party that ushered in the Democratic control of both chambers of Congress in 2007 due to their united anti-war front, as well as general opposition to the policies of two-term President George W. Bush.
Let’s take a look at the GOP again. From 1980 – 2008 there was a clear succession of leaders of the Republican Party, or “Kingmakers.” Not always politicians, these individuals had the ability to bring the party together under a single platform and unify the party by focusing warring factions on shared priorities, and being able to manage opposition from groups that didn’t necessarily want to get on board. The clearest example of this was in 1992 with the Contract with America, crafted and managed by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and with the support of then-House Republican Conference Chairman Dick Armey and the rest of the party.
From Ronald Reagan to Karl Rove, these kingmakers kept the GOP as unified as was possible in order to advance the party’s policy objectives. By the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, however, the factions had independently gained significant influence and the ability to maintain the unity of the party dwindled. Beginning in 2006, a number of high net worth individuals, many with conflicting policy priorities and political ideologies attempted to pick up the mantle of kingmaker in the absence of a clear party leader, but those competing efforts ultimately weren’t able to coalesce enough power to serve the function of party kingmaker.
Since President Trump’s ascension to the White House, which was followed by the GOP-led Congress’ dramatic and repeated failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, some in the mainstream media have breathlessly reported that the Republican party is “fracturing” or beginning to split. But even a cursory review of history shows that this is inaccurate. It has been split for decades into disparate factions, but this uneasy coalition has always been able to be managed by a kingmaker in the party. The absence of a kingmaker and the growth of influence of formerly lesser influential factions has equalized the three main factions so that no single bloc has a chance to control the direction of the party.
Since the 1990s the Democratic Party has had its kingmakers, namely the Clintons and their political machine. Where the Republicans had Karl Rove, the Democrats had John Podesta. But just as the factions grew around Rove for the Republicans, the progressives have weakened the influence of Podesta and the Clintons within the Democratic Party to the point where the likely Democratic nominee for President in 2020 will be Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Both parties face a challenge of pulling together enough of a coalition with votes from the different factions to be able to advance their legislative priorities. Groups like the libertarians can many times be the swing vote with their strong anti-regulation drug policy and anti-war/ non-interventionist positions on defense policy.
Until each party has leadership able to put together a unified coalition government, they will both struggle with internal civil wars and an inability to effectively serve the American people. Unless that happens, we will continue to have a two-party system in name only.