The Republican “establishment” and its discontents

To some, the story of the GOP over the past few years (as seems to be the case periodically) is one of tension between the “establishment” and the grassroots. You needn’t look very hard to find vociferous opposition by some on the right to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (nor is it hard to find groups that exist merely to make money off that opposition).

I’m sure some have tagged me as “establishment” as well (after all, I’ve served in office, I’m an attorney, and I live in Bellevue – three strikes!). It’s unfortunate that some, including people on our own side, are so quick to tout a perceived party split, because those under the Republican banner agree on so much.

Talk of division is also driven by commentators on the left who see political advantage in making mountains out of molehills. They love to see intransigent opposition in what is actually just polite disagreement.

This is not to say there aren’t real disagreements, but often it’s more a debate about tactics than a disagreement over goals. The party has a great slate of presidential candidates for 2016, with one bloviating exception, many of whom could draw broad support from all parts of the party. Republicans are excited about next year, and ultimately they’ll be united.

How do you solve a problem like The Donald? (How do you hold a Moonbeam in your hand?)
Broaching this topic does require us to note that people have different definitions of what qualifies as the Republican “base”, a fact which Donald Trump, the ultimate “anti-establishment” candidate, is helping to illuminate.

I don’t hide my thoughts on Donald Trump, and I agree with George Will’s assessment that he’s a phony Republican. He highlights some issues that do appeal to some on the right (and the left), but as more people learn of his inconsistencies, hypocrisy, and egomania, his appeal will fade.

Communicators from the left are happy to say Trump is drawing big support from the Republican base, but that gets us back to that question of who the “base” is. I’m not sure many of those who are ready to embrace Trump count as the base, any more than those quick to bolt the GOP for Ross Perot in 1992 did. The party faithful are excited for our actual Republican candidates, not Donald Trump.

Are “establishment” tactics working?
Though some like to complain about the establishment, and think party leaders don’t have enough “fight” in them, Jennifer Rubin makes a good argument in the Washington Post that their tactics are proving pretty successful:

The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act? It’s setting the stage for widespread and bipartisan opposition to the deal. Right-wing hard-liners actually wanted to defeat it a few short months ago. Establishment Republicans prevailed, thankfully.

The often vilified House and Senate GOP leadership have been churning out legislation and reaching deals on trade, human trafficking prevention, the Keystone XL pipeline (ultimately vetoed by Obama), reforming No Child Left Behind (different House and Senate versions must be reconciled), and a permanent “doc fix.”

The Establishment counseled against a government shutdown on the president’s unilateral immigration action, explaining that the courts were the best venue to win the fight. So far, success in court has proven them right.

That’s a pretty good record, especially considering the reality, often downplayed by those who want to sow discontent, that Republicans don’t run all branches of government. Rubin gives some of the dissidents credit, though, for pushing party leaders to do better:

Moreover, the new GOP Establishment has, unlike its critics, learned from errors, figured out that winning elections requires getting votes from non-Republicans and adopted a reform-minded agenda. Grass-roots activists can take credit for prodding and pulling the Establishment to repudiate cronyism and to make clear distinctions between the parties. But they should also concede that if not for the dreaded Establishment, the party and the conservative movement would be a lot worse off right now. The anti-Establishment critics might also want to ponder why it is that the Establishment has chalked up a string of wins. It might just be that success in politics requires skill, moderation, compromise and sobriety.

Ultimately these sorts of tensions are, like primary competitions, more likely to result in a united and stronger party than a split one. Like primaries, working through these tensions produces better leaders and better candidates, too. Who can doubt that 2014 was a better year for GOP congressional candidates than the strange parade of 2010? Chastened party leadership had gotten the message from some in the grassroots, but they also buckled down on recruitment to avoid the embarrassments of 2010. That was good for everybody in the party.

The left loves the idea of a split Republican Party and talks up the notion in hopes of making it reality. That’s because a united GOP in 2016 will spoil all of their best-laid plans.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.