GOP Establishment and the Tea Party: Ships Passing in the Night

Surprisingly, both claim to embrace immigrants and at least give lip service to some kind of a path to citizenship:

PAUL: We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities.

We must be the party that says, “If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.”

RUBIO: We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.

Is there enough commonality between the two sides to suggest a meeting of the minds to heal the breach -- at least enough that threats to "primary" incumbents and attempts to prevent Tea Party candidates from winning would subside and a tolerance for each other's views would replace acrimony and distrust?

If the two sides could get their act together and come up with a coherent message, recent polls suggest the American people are willing to listen. A recent Pew Poll showed that a whopping 73% of the American people believe that "Washington does the right thing" only some of the time or never. And Gallup found a broad distrust of government in December, with 64% saying they fear big government more than they do big business or big labor.

However, any kind of reconciliation is probably not going to happen. As a matter of temperament, there is a vast difference between the two sides. The Tea Party does not trust the establishment Republicans, believing they don't "fight" the Democrats hard enough. In essence, the Tea Party  thinks that establishment Republicans do not stand fast on "principle" and thus allow the Democrats to run roughshod over the party. The establishment, on the other hand, sees the Tea Party as too rigid, too uncompromising, too politically naive to govern.

But it's actually more basic than that. What makes the establishment and Tea Party ships passing in the night is a different vision of the role of government in society.

PAUL: Ronald Reagan said, government is not the answer to the problem, government is the problem.

Tonight, the President told the nation he disagrees. President Obama believes government is the solution: More government, more taxes, more debt.

RUBIO:: Now does this mean there’s no role for government? Of course not. It plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life. But government’s role is wisely limited by the Constitution. And it can’t play its essential role when it ignores those limits.

It is inaccurate to say the Tea Party is "anti-government," although there is certainly a faction within the Tea Party that is. The establishment sees the Tea Party as wanting to put government in a strait jacket, limited in what it can do based on a severely restrictive view of the Constitution. The Tea Party believes the establishment, in embracing the basic idea of the welfare state, is little better than the Democratic Party -- indeed, their favorite pejorative is to refer to pragmatists as "Democrat-lites" -- and that a sharper and more pronounced distinction between the two parties is a key to victory at the polls. This includes the radical notion that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, as well as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, should be rolled back -- even eliminated.

Those ships passing in the night are exchanging broadsides over the question of what the term "limited government" means in a modern 21st century, industrial democracy. Despite agreement on a wide range of issues, there will be no reconciliation as long as neither side is willing to alter their fundamental beliefs when it comes to Constitutional limits on government. Both sides believe in limits on government power. But the pragmatists recognize the reality that those limits should be broad enough to encompass those things a modern state must do; "keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life," as Rubio put it. The other side sees a far more limited role for government and, to varying degrees, rejects the idea that government programs for the poor and government regulation of business are even constitutional.

It hardly matters who is "right." What's important is that the competing visions of government's role is keeping the two sides apart. And that is not likely to change anytime soon.