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A GOP Senate Takeover Would Worsen the Party's Identity Crisis

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The possibility that Republicans will recapture the Senate in 2014 lurks in the background of almost every story about American politics. The positive news about the Affordable Care Act is inextricably linked to the question of whether a Congress under complete GOP control would reopen its books. Many liberals are increasingly concerned about the possibility that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will only be moved to retire after Democrats have lost a good measure of control over who will replace her. President Obama would probably have to veto a bunch of bills. Republicans would double their oversight capabilities.

And so on.

None of these scenarios is good for Democrats, and there's no sense in anyone convincing themselves that a GOP Senate takeover would be a wash for their party or the president.

But if you believe, as I do, that the most important meta-story in American politics today is the Republican Party's ongoing and increasingly bloody factional struggle for identity, a GOP Senate takeover would confront the party with new and fascinating internal challenges. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sidelined, it would set the party up to do unencumbered battle with Obama, and deny him the opportunity to spend his last two years in office shaping his own legacy.

No doubt Obama wants to avoid that.

But with new power comes new pretenders. With respect to just about every potential partisan conflict, including the ones listed above, the tensions already simmering within the party will come boiling to the surface. And Republican leaders won't be able to satisfy their restive members with the familiar, mathematically questionable excuse that they only control one-half of one-third of government.

That might not matter if a majority American voters were hungry for confrontation and right-wing politics. But they're not. Republican political strategists know they're not. And the last thing they'd want to do ahead of the next presidential election, when they hope to end their losing streak, is allow inmates to take over the asylum.

We already know, for instance, that the country is experiencing Obamacare fatigue. And we know that as a result, Republicans are trying, with mixed results, to alter their messaging and midterm campaign focus. And though they'd surely love to damage Obama's signature accomplishment, or sow more public discontent with the law, we also know that unrelenting Obamacare brinksmanship can backfire.

But does Senator Ted Cruz know? Or more to the point, does he care? If he sees it as his job to win a Republican presidential primary, will he bury his head in the sand when Republican leaders soft-pedal their opposition, or refuse to use the debt limit and appropriations as levers with which to sabotage the law?

If Justice Ginsburg steps down in 2015 and Obama nominates a liberal female or ethnic minority, or a female ethnic minority to replace her what would Majority Leader Mitch McConnell do? If past is prologue, he'd just refuse to confirm anyone until 2017, banking on the chance that a Republican will replace Obama in the White House.

And yet I'm not entirely convinced that McConnell will decide that what was good, rational politics in 2011 and 2012 will be good, rational politics in 2015 and 2016, when his job isn't to deny Obama a second term, but to deny Hillary Clinton a first. Either way, hardliners will surely insist that McConnell do everything in his power to prevent Obama from replacing Ginsburg. The only reverie that distracts the American right as much as winning back the White House is a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court, and confirming a third Obama nominee would make it much less likely. A Ginsburg retirement puts the Republican Party's two wildest fantasies at cross-purposes.

Ultra-conservatives will likewise want to pass divisive, unpopular legislation and investigate imagined conspiracies.

It's not clear to me which faction wins in these scenarios, but the more influence the right exerts, the harder it will be on the eventual Republican presidential nominee to forge an identity distinct from the massively unpopular GOP congressional delegation.

After the 2012 election, Governor Chris Christie saw this coming, and when House Republicans began playing games with disaster relief for New Jersey, he responded by triangulating against them. He called out House Speaker John Boehner by name and humiliated his own party on national television. Whether he knew it or not, he was borrowing from and embossing the playbook George W. Bush used to distinguish himself from the Gingrich revolutionaries.

Presumably Christie (or Jeb Bush or whomever wins the GOP nomination) would run the same basic play in 2016. But it's worth remembering that though George W. assumed the presidency in 2001, his strategy didn't actually work well enough to win it for him.