GOP field split mirrors the House leadership crisis

By Carl P. Leubsdorf - The Dallas Morning News

Pundits are notoriously bad at forecasting the future, but perhaps we should have seen this coming.

For the split between outsider and establishment Republican candidates actually resembles an exaggerated version of the division in the party’s 2012 race.

And it mirrors the split within the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, most recently over this week’s budget deal. While the GOP was tapping Rep. Paul Ryan as the new speaker, the Wisconsin Republican felt it necessary to curry favor with the hard-core conservative faction by denouncing the way his predecessor forged a pact designed in part to ease his future.

In both cases, the divisions reflect the fact that most Republicans, unlike most Democrats, prefer officials who stand up for their principles, rather than seeking compromises, and feel party leaders have facilitated President Barack Obama’s policies rather than reverse them.

In fact, as House GOP leaders conceded in announcing the budget deal, Republican congressional majorities are insufficient to reverse a Democratic president, requiring compromises the broader public prefers. GOP success next year might depend on the extent it persuades voters it can bridge those divisions.

Outgoing Speaker John Boehner’s role in facilitating the budget deal helps make that case, removing the imminent threat of a government shutdown as Ryan assumes the task of managing those discordant GOP wings.

But Ryan might already have undercut his future leverage when lawmakers consider details of the spending plan and pending highway, conservation and tax measures. While seeking support from the conservative Freedom Caucus, members said he agreed to abide by the Hastert Rule.

The rule, attributed to former Speaker Dennis Hastert, means the full House will consider only measures supported by a majority of Republicans. But the budget debate shows again that a coalition from both parties is the only way the House can pass legislation acceptable to the Senate and Obama.

Ryan’s dilemma was underscored earlier when, despite his impeccable conservative pedigree and voting record, he faced some conservative criticism for helping Democrats pass past fiscal compromises and favoring comprehensive immigration legislation. That presumably explains why, though he brokered a similar budget deal two years ago, he felt compelled to denounce the behind-the-scenes process this time — though he backed the end result.

Still, the deal helps Ryan by removing the most contentious pending issue on his plate — “cleaning the barn,” as Boehner put it. But it will take next year’s primaries and caucuses to resolve the increasingly acrimonious split in the presidential race.

Significantly, the balance of GOP power in them seems different from four years ago when the main establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, always seemed likely to outlast conservative challengers.

Not only have most 2016 outsider candidates never held office, but Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz are showing greater staying power than businessman Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did in 2012.

GOP leaders even say they see a path for Trump to win the nomination, something never really possible in 2012 for Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich and Santorum.

While both the bumptious billionaire developer and Dr. Carson have struck a chord with Republicans fed up with Washington, their establishment rivals — especially former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — are showing increasing frustration over their campaign weakness.

Bush, as the son and brother of past GOP presidents, hoped to play Romney’s role this time. But the former Florida governor has been a poor candidate, gaffe-prone, lacking energy and unable to escape the legacy of his brother’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq. Other establishment hopefuls, such as Rubio, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, have not stepped up enough yet to take his place.

The GOP presidential field needs a Ryan, someone acceptable to its outsiders who can convince voters he can get things done. Barring that, it needs a nominee who can persuade voters the inexperience Republicans repeatedly assailed in Obama won’t be a handicap for them in wielding executive power.



Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: [email protected].


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By Carl P. Leubsdorf

The Dallas Morning News

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